Certain perks might make René more appealing than other high-profile, downtown restaurants, like free valet parking, suede-soft chairs and entrees all priced under $20. But given Chef René Bajeaux's national and culinary origins -- he hails from the Alsace-Lorraine region of France and most recently held court at the Windsor Court's Grill Room -- the nitty-gritty here is what's edible. Is the soup a l'oignon worth its calories in Gruyere? Is there a skate on the menu you can't live without? Is Bajeaux's Poulet Grand Mere better than the chicken your own grandmother will make you, for free? Yes, yes, and yes. The menu has weaknesses, but approach ordering from it like you would approach learning to roll the French "r": if immediate intuition doesn't work, a good bit of practice will.
The menu reads like a wish list for French and Belgian expatriates: escargots, saucisse de canard, salade Nicoise, steak au poivre and brandade. An out Francophile, I sensed my belly broadening to make space when I first spotted the blanquette de veau, a one-dish meal characterized by tender meat, a thin but hearty milk sauce, carefully cooked vegetables and a starch. While the dish is simple by tradition, René's blanquette was dreary. The shrill of concentrated white wine was the predominant flavor; cubes of veal only yielded to incisors; soggy vegetables hearkened a pot pie. On that same first evening the cassoulet, another dish you might assume Bajeaux masters with eyes closed, behaved no better. Its duck sausage was rich and musky, its white beans busted with fat and flavor, and a side salad tossed in a garlicky cream dressing tempered the cassoulet's gamy intensity. But the whole contained barely a droplet of moisture; its duck confit was dry as over-baked chicken breast.
I could have called it a night with the meal's talented supporting cast: a $20 bottle of Picpoul de Pinet, a warmed mini-baguette and a gratis scoop of white bean puree sexed up with chives and white truffle oil. My playful server wouldn't have cared less. He brought me tap water before I asked for it, seduced me with juicy restaurant gossip and divulged a hilarious ignorance of anything French.
Several weeks and hundreds of turned tables later, however, the tables turned. On my last two visits I landed servers who were more intent on selling bottled water than the plats du jour (which were never mentioned) or their own personalities. But they didn't miss a beat otherwise, pacing each meal as if I was welcome to eat through to breakfast, delivering heavy, deco-style silverware for each course with the exactitude of an O.R. nurse and detailing each menu item, if not with polished French, with a definite understanding of Bajeaux's mission. When a French Master Chef serves a sauteed skate like Bajeaux's for $15.50, his mission tastes like charity. Set over a warm salad of haricots verts, fresh artichoke hearts and red onions, the skate's clean flesh (meaty and sweet like Chilean sea bass or scallop) pulled apart like Venetian blinds, letting in rays of buttery caper sauce; it teetered on that thrilling precipice of too-salty, as if to recall the skate's natural habitat.
Several other dishes during those latter two meals were similarly straightforward, earthy and French-country perfect. Chocolate-rich rabbit painted with Dijon mustard was served with crisp spaetzle, button mushrooms and pearl onions petit as diamond solitaires -- a combination that could exist solely to flatter Belgium's yeasty-sweet Chimay beer. Half a pull-apart rotisserie chicken that steeped in a mellow, garlicky glaze with potatoes the shape of melon balls and lardons celebrated the barnyard friendship of poultry and pork. All garlic and herbs, escargots were like squeaky sausages. A pastoral soupe a l'oignon came covered with a souffle-like cap of Gruyere "custard," which was broiled nut-brown like a toasted marshmallow. Finally, with side dishes like salsify slicked with brown butter (a white root vegetable resembling both asparagus and raw potato when cooked) and crunchy, just-sour turnip sauerkraut, you darn well better eat your vegetables.
Desserts didn't brag of a professional pastry chef, but they got by: a cobblestone-size dacquoise with hazelnut cream and pliant but firm sheets of meringue, a basic strawberry trifle with mascarpone-like cream, and profiteroles au chocolat filled with pistachio, coffee and hot pink ice creams.
The restaurant itself is chic, designed with whimsy but not silliness. Still, the contemporary decorative details seem mostly like concessions to the house, a hip downtown hotel. For Bajeaux's is a cuisine you would be happy to eat over a time-worn farmhouse table set with whole baguettes, crocks of butter and two carafes -- one filled with an easy French wine, and the other crisp, cold water from the tap.