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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Aspiring to Much Grander Heights : Le Rendez-Vous offers classic French cuisine that hasn't gone nouvelle.

July 29, 1993|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the manner of a classic roadside diner, Le Rendez-Vous draws cars around it like a cloak on a cold winter's night.

When you enter the unimposing, utilitarian building, set back from a freeway frontage road, your first impression is, indeed, of an upscale roadside diner because that's exactly what the bar evokes. It's dark and smoky, filled with funky art and memorabilia, with a long well of a bar illuminated by the surreal glow of back-lit stained glass.

Le Rendez-Vous, however, aspires to much grander heights. Once you are seated at one of the many intimate dining areas of this generous-sized restaurant, you will see that they have succeeded in creating an atmosphere befitting a special-occasion restaurant offering classic French cuisine.

Cozy amber lighting highlights snowy linens and warm brown walls, while stately high-backed chairs make every diner feel as if he or she is at the head of the table. The waiters, in formal tuxedos and night-life pallor, perform with efficiency and attention to detail--very comme il faut.

Le Rendez-Vous is a disappearing breed of restaurant, offering French cuisine that hasn't even gone nouvelle. In the past few years, many of these restaurants have been superseded by the craze for Italian food and for what is perceived as lighter fare. It's a pity, because marvelous French food inspired words like feast and banquet, and dining at Le Rendez-Vous is a real treat.

They begin the meal by bringing to the table a gift of their own pate, a light and tangy, unusual version made of ground filet mignon, cream cheese and olives. It was served with Ritz crackers, of all things, causing a heated discussion on whether French restaurants should be allowed to serve non-French foods. At least the crackers had a French name.

This is the kind of restaurant that shows care in its first courses. Salads were splendid. They even toss a very tasty Caesar salad (another departure from French tradition) right at the table. French onion soup (do they call it French onion in France?) was prepared with a robust beef stock and was quite good, even better without the heavy cheese and croutons. On different occasions, I also tried a succulent creamy vegetable soup and a distinctive asparagus soup.

It is possible to order completely different meals here and have the plates arrive looking exactly alike. On a given night, they dress all the meals with the same vegetables, fine garlicky string beans, buttery crisp carrots or browned potatoes. And all the sauces are a uniform gravy-colored brown. The difference lies in the taste, engagingly unique to each dish.

Fabulous, delicate sweetbreads ($17.25) had a wine and cognac mustard sauce with shallots and capers. I would recommend the restaurant on the basis of this dish alone. An amazingly tender capon ($14.75) came with a resonant tarragon sauce and pungent marinated hearts of palm. Slices of tenderloin of lamb were couched in a mustard garlic sauce, although the meat was not as rare as requested.

Steak Diane ($18.75) was a tender filet mignon with a very light cream and cognac sauce.

A radical departure from these meals, crab in lobster sauce, came in a very hot terrine. It tasted quite crabby, but made one think of a pudding served in a nursery. The Rendez-Vous' scampi were OK, although the sauce was a bit timid. However, two very fresh fish, snapper and halibut, were both close to perfection.

Desserts, prepared on the premises, are brought to the table on a tray for inspection. They know full well that at this point, the eyes can make the stomach forget how much has just been eaten. I liked the rich, thin chocolate sauce on a small cream puff, also on a chocolate mousse, which was in itself too sweet and sticky. I also savored an intense strawberry sauce served with a strawberry tulipe ($4), made from a crisp, shaped cookie (it tasted fried), filled with delicious homemade ice cream covered with sliced strawberries.

It is no secret that this is a family-run business, and at least one member of the "Francois and sons and nephew" (and in-laws) dynasty is always on hand. You can certainly count on the high standards for service and quality of food this promises. Their pride is well-justified.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Le Rendez-Vous, 1282 Newbury Road, Newbury Park, 498-1019. Lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Sunday brunch 3 to 9 p.m. Full bar. All major credit cards except Discover. Dinner for two, food only, $48 to $74.

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