Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Review: Le Parigo

Originally published in the August, 2006 issue of CityView magazine.

You must go to Le Parigo:

French cooking finds an incongruous home in Bearden

There are many that would not predict likely success for a French restaurant in Knoxville. There are even more that would think an organic French restaurant doesn’t stand a fighting chance in the over-crowded dining scene our fair city is graced (or burdened?) with. I am here to tell these people—you are about to be proven wrong.

Walking into Le Parigo, I can’t help but notice the similarities and differences the décor has to the previous restaurant to hold court in this location. It is a disservice to an establishment, I think, to compare it to the previous tenant. But in the case of this small space, I couldn’t help but to seek out reminders of Mango, the Kenny Saio restaurant that was the inaugural inhabitant of the building. And reminders are indeed still there, in the palm leaf frieze on one wall (likely covering some sort of electrical panel), the smoke-reducing fans above the now smoke-free bar, and most jarringly, the vibrant russet, Bordeaux, and pumpkin colored walls. The art is different, of course, and the furniture has indeed changed. In fact, it’s the furniture that made the unchanged color scheme stand out so—pink velvet upholstered boudoir-esque chairs that did not, in any way, meld with the vibrantly earthy colors meant to match Mango’s eclectic fusion menu. Luckily, once you are folded into one of these admittedly comfortable chairs, the music sinks in, your attentive waiter brings you a glass of wine in a varietal-specific piece of stemware, and the food makes you forget any incongruities that the décor brought to mind. Because it’s the food, my friends, that really matters at Le Parigo. In fact, after eating (and eating, and eating), I quickly realized that this was not a restaurant that needed to rely on sleekly coordinated décor—just take one look, one smell, one bite of the dish in front of you, and suddenly your surroundings are oh-so harmonious.

From the moment I arrived at Le Parigo, the service was impeccable. Greeted at the door by the host I was immediately swept off to my waiting table, where another staff member swiftly pulled out my chair for me and handed me a wine list. When I requested to wait to order wine after ordering my meal, the dinner menu was in my hands seemingly before I finished the thought. A nearby table wobbled briefly and yet another waiter ducks in with a shim to stabilize the situation. I don’t even think the affected patrons broke their conversation. It’s these small touches—such as having your table crumbed between courses, never having to ask for a replacement for cleared silverware, or your water goblet never dipping below half full—that really do make the higher price you are paying for the food worth every penny. The service here evokes its Parisian ideal, where a career as a waiter is considered a noble profession worth dedicating your life to.

Not only is the environment evocative of a French dining experience, this is French food—replete with complex, labor-intensive sauces, showcasing perfect examples of classic ingredients—and yet it’s unique as well, paying homage to American cooking’s youthful ingenuity. I started with what is considered to be a classic warm weather French soup—vichyssoise (indeed created by a Frenchman, but in New York, not his native country). This dish ($5) showcases the French-yet-not-French parallel I mentioned: picture the lightest, silkiest potato puree you’ve ever tasted, packed with decadent cream…butter…the palest leeks…and drizzled with a trio of sauces, each bite a revelation. This took the very idea of vichyssoise I had ingrained in my memory (too cold, often thin and dominated by grainy potatoes) and knocked it out. The room temperature soup was so delicious I had to force myself to not scrape the bowl clean. This velvety, creamy essence of what potatoes and leeks aspire to be filled my mouth with a comforting, yet elegant, blend of flavors, topped with a dazzling drizzle of chive oil, carrot puree, and a red wine demi-glace so thick and jammy I would have sworn it was some sort of divine fruit reduction. These garnishes (if you can call something that adds so much a garnish) make a welcome reappearance throughout the savory courses.

With this auspicious beginning I was rapturously awaiting the next course. I purposely ordered the house special beef tartare ($12), because I feel that this is a dish that is easy to over do. High quality beef should not require too much fiddling, the idea behind tartare is to really let the exceptional flavors and textures of a supreme cut of beef shine through. And shine it did, with such aplomb that I began to wonder why you would ever want to cook such a meltingly tender cut of meat. Packed with flavor that complimented, rather than overwhelmed; the rich, unctuous steak was paired with wafer thin toast points and a lightly dressed salad of baby lettuces. If I had to offer a complaint, it would be that I would have liked more of the toasts with the dish, yet it seemed that I finished every bite of meat with no problems.

From here the evening took on the jovial, almost giddy tone that can only be set by excellent food. My dining companion and I were never rushed; rather I had the idea that our table was just that, our table, with no plans to seat another pair of diners at it for the rest of the evening. This added to the luxurious feeling of the meal, after all if you are going to have four courses of perfectly rich food you might as well take nearly three hours to enjoy it, which we did. After the first two courses, I took a moment to digest and enjoy the excellent glass of rosé I had ordered from the all-French wine list, a Caves des Papes Cotes du Rhone Heritage Rosé—pricey at $10 a glass but the tart raspberry notes summoned daydreams of summers in the south of France. After this breather came the entrée I had chosen from the tempting menu: pan seared sea scallops with pommes Anna, spinach prosciutto custard, carrot puree and buerre blanc ($27).

This is a masterful dish with sweet scallops perfectly complimented by the incredibly unique custard—the spinach and prosciutto concoction is light, with a flash of spinach flavor filling your mouth and then gone in an instant, leaving behind the savory chunks of prosciutto to compliment the buttery scallops. The crisp wedges of pommes Anna served alongside are a little dry and tough, but in the long run this is irrelevant, so entranced was I by the custard, the scallops, and the satiny carrot puree. Those with hearty appetites might balk at the four scallop serving, but they will find the dish so rich and ultimately filling that it might be difficult to finish.

Sated as I was by the parade of delights I’d just consumed, I felt it would be nearly criminal to not partake of one of the evening’s tempting dessert offerings. Crème brulee ménage a trios was in order—3 “shots” of the classic dessert, a perfect size after a decadent meal. Warm and crisp on top, perfectly cool and creamy inside—the mocha and pistachio flavors definitely outshone the classic vanilla, leaving my companion and me scraping each bit of smooth custard, following with a fantastic coffee from Vienna Coffee Company. The “Le Parigo Blend” custom-made for the restaurant is served with the rustic brown sugar cubes that can be found at any café in France, and can be purchased at the door.

Le Parigo is a restaurant that obviously prides itself on the small things that make a restaurant memorable, and they show that it’s these small things that can often matter most. Scrupulous attention to detail, exquisite ingredients and preparation, and an elegant yet relaxed atmosphere—these are the elements that will keep loyal customers coming back to Le Parigo again and again.


Acme Instant Food said...

You are becoming quite the reviewer! Thanks, now I'm craving beef carpaccio!

Marianne said...

You make me blush! It really IS the best tartare.

Anonymous said...

I've been there twice with my wife. Both times we were impressed with the service. The presentation was excellent. The portions...just right. The flavor...salty. Way too salty. They also use farm raised salmon which is most definitly NOT organic (anti-biotics, died feed). Some serious talent here...somewhere under all that salt. Everything, on both occasions was way too salty. Too bad really.

Anonymous said...

Guess it was not so great after all seeing as it has CLOSED! Confuscious say - Restaurant run by French asshole seldom last long in Knoxville. Chinese Buffet better bet!

Mike Flowers said...

It's not closed... it moved to Clinch Ave. GREAT food. Better than the >$700 meal we had at Guy Savoy!!!