Friday, May 6, 2011

Café de Paris Fights The Big Boys And Scores Big WIth French Onion Soup, Tuna And Crepes

Café de Paris in Columbia made Richard Gorelick's list of the 50 Best in the Baltimore suburbs, and it also pleased DonkeyKong, a Howard County native who lives here with his wife and two kids.

A few weeks ago, he wanted a special weeknight dinner to celebrate his wife's birthday.  A sitter was near impossible, so they decided to go local, but try a high-end spot.
With a grandparent showing up to give us a few hours to go out, we opted to try Café Du Paris off Rte. 100 and Rte. 108. We’ve always wanted to try it, but honestly -- and maybe it’s the conditioned inferiority complex I have about Howard County’s restaurant scene -- we have reasoned, if we are going out to eat then “WE ARE GOING OUT TO EAT”. That means a $100 meal in DC or Baltimore to fill out the illusion of date night where the ambiance must match the drive, the sitter, and the brief escape from reality that dining out provides. 
Café du Paris provided on most of those fronts. Here I should mention that earlier that day I had a business lunch at Central in DC. Now Central isn’t Citronelle, but it’s the same celebrity chef (Michel Richard). It’s consistently considered one of the top restaurants in DC (now one of the best foodie towns in America), and getting a table is sometimes difficult. 
So I was going from French food prepared by one of the best French kitchens in the country (supposedly) to what Howard County had to offer. At both restaurants I had almost the same meal -- French onion soup, sesame encrusted tuna, and a crepe for desert. When the crock of soup came to the table, they should have been playing the theme from “Rocky” as the soup spoon reached my lips. I probably should have been slurping in slow motion to heighten the suspense of whether our hometown restaurant could compete with the juggernaut celebrity from down south. 
Like Rocky Balboa, there was a puncher’s chance packed into the signature first course: Café du Paris soup was far better than Central’s, turning Richard’s brew into Lipton cup-o-soup. By contrast the CDP soup was brimming with flavor. The broth was that perfect combination of beef stock and onion with a perfect amount of cheese- not too much that it overpowers the bowl, but enough that you appreciate it. My tuna was fairly similar in taste, a little less in presentation, and my dessert bested Central’s again. I liked it because it was accesible, French food can be fancy, but it does not need to be for gastronomes either. Here a simple crepe with fresh fruit, fresh cream, and just the right amount of sugar and spice is the perfect after meal encore. Central's dessert relied too much on panache, and while enjoyable, sometimes simplicity wins out. In the round by round, I scored the courses 10-9, 9-10, and 10-9. Cafe du Paris even scored style points with the wine service (it was half price bottle night), and that sent Central staggering against the ropes with an Apollo Creed like cut over its eye. 
But I have to end the fight as a draw. After we were done, we were satisfied, a little light-headed from the wine, and only out of the house for a little more than 70 minutes. That's not a full night out. That's when you want to grab a drink or stroll around to extend the vacation from humdrum daily life. No matter the pleasures of Café du Paris, still tips to Central where you can walk out to the monuments, grab a beer at a decent bar, or people-watch in DC. 
You just can't do that in Howard County. I hope downtown Columbia develops into a place that delivers the whole "night out" package like Frederick, Silver Spring, Bethesda and the cities. Maybe the Johns Hopkins Triangle -- with four good, clustered restaurants -- is on its way. Maple Lawn sold itself as a place that would bring that scene, but the developers are cynically paving over that vision. 
So there we were, contemplating our next move just an hour and half after leaving my mom in charge of the kids. Across two lanes of traffic was Royal Farms. We picked up a pack of Trident and left behind our illusion of dining in Provence.
What do you think of the local scene?  Where do you recommend for people who want to EAT OUT in Howard County?  (Anyone have a photo of Cafe de Paris?  DonkeyKong didn't snap a cell shot!)


leah said...

Nice post. Cafe de Paris is also great for brunch. But I agree about the office building ambience.

Mike Sapp said...

If I am not mistaken the owner, Erik Rochard, once told me that his previous job, before opening the restaurant in its old location in Laurel, was working for Michel Richard as the Maitre'D for Citronelle. Perhaps its not such a coincidence that the battle was so close!

Anonymous said...

Most of our family enjoys Cafe de Paris, but our one vegetarian family member is consistently disappointed.

Lynn Mann said...

We have had several good meals at both the restaurant and the crepe cafe. However the last time we went to Cafe de Paris might well be the last time.
The wait for our food was close to an hour (it miraculously appeared when we said we were leaving) and my mussels were inedible. When I complained to the waitress she brought the manager over but all he did was take it off our bill - no one offered to bring me anything else to eat, or a dessert or anything to make up for the disgraceful meal.
We ended up going to the Giant across the street and buying me a meal at the deli counter.
What a disappointment!

Brown Bronx Lady said...

This has to be the worst representation of French food ever. La Madeleine which is somewhat pedestrian, is so much better. My onion soup never, ever cooled down enough to eat & when I told this to our server...she looked bewildered at my annoyance. My chicken had gone on to a better life & left its dried carcass to disguise as my entree - it was baked/roasted beyond death & I am sure it was very happy to be put out of its misery & as they say 'misery loves company' - well miserable was I. The risotto croquettes, which we remembered from our 1st visit, must have been from that visit, were fried so hard we thought we were at Arthur Treacher's having hush puppies. The vegetable ragu was also an indescribable mess with the only edible part being the liquid which we tried soaking the croquettes in an attempt to soften them enough to eat - alas, to no avail. The ONLY, only good was the martini. This is one restaurant we will never forget - in a not so good way. What surprised us even more was the non-response from CDP to my email about our experience. Customer service? - oh let me think - MISSING. Cafe de Paris is definitely on our 'Never Eat Here Again' list.

Anonymous said...

Cafe de Paris is closing its doors this coming weekend according to a post on its Facebook page: "Sunday will be the last day of Cafe de Paris. After 16 years of loyal and dedicated service, the Cafe will close its doors for ever. You need to know how hard this decision was to make: an American concept bought over our location, I am pleased to say they have done a great job in their first operation and will bring to Columbia a healthy, friendly and quality Tavern style restaurant that you will all appreciate...because as we did at the Cafe, they put their heart in it.