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An e-mail came in recently, urging a visit to the “new Le Paradou” restaurant in Penn Quarter downtown. When a renowned restaurant feels the need to reinvent itself — and then tell the world — it hints that trouble is afoot. Why would chef and co-owner Yannick Cam, with a long history of fine D.C. restaurants, ranging from Le Pavillon to Provence, need to revise a two-year-old eatery that opened to mostly rave reviews? Some initial criticism suggested that the place “lacked heart,” but Le Paradou was said to offer the best French cuisine in Washington. And if the axiom that “Any publicity is good publicity” is true, then it also just had a healthy dose: Last month former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay‘s Texas Republican friends bid farewell to the departing congressman at a lavish Le Paradou dinner. Given that DeLay had criticized the French early in the Iraq war, the locale of the dinner was a bit of irony that made the gossip columns. But the e-mail seemed worth heeding, especially since Le Paradou, at 678 Indiana Ave. N.W., is not far from the downtown courthouses that send hungry lawyers into the streets every weekday. One problem presented itself the moment our threesome entered the modern, elegant dining room for lunch recently. Whether or not it lacks heart, Le Paradou was missing something else — namely, customers. It was Friday at 1 p.m., yet only one table was filled — two people who were just finishing lunch. From 1:15 until nearly 3 the three of us had the dining room to ourselves. Admittedly, it was a Friday in July, but even in July a restaurant needs more than five lunch customers to stay alive. Much to the restaurant’s credit, it had not sent the chef and the waiters home. The service and food were excellent. The staff was attentive and never rushed us. Our water glasses and bread plates were never empty. For appetizers we ordered a lobster-claw salad, crab ravioli, and a roasted Maine lobster. To our surprise, all three arrived at the table looking almost identical, with lobster-claw meat delicately draped over small mounds of food. But the flavors were distinct and wonderful. The lobster-claw salad was the most refreshing on a summer day, pairing lobster meat with gazpacho and a dab of “avocado terrine” — is that French for guacamole? The crab ravioli was excellent, with a mild tomato-tinged butter sauce and a lobster-claw garnish. My roasted lobster was adorned with a classic wine sauce kicked up with grapefruit zest and ginger. From the appetizers a theme emerged: The mild succulence of lobster was enhanced but not overwhelmed by bolder accompaniments. The menu also offered at least three other lobster-based appetizers. Portions were small but adequate. Our entrees were more varied. Rack of lamb turned out to be three chops, superbly prepared but pricey at $39. One accompaniment, an eggplant pur�e, had an overpowering smoky flavor. The filet mignon was also tender and flavorful, with small but tasty sides of potatoes and salsify. Every component of a meal at Le Paradou clearly gets careful, individual attention. A fish dish, billed as a combination of sole, scallops, and stuffed squid, was a slight disappointment. Turbot substituted for sole, which was fine, and no squid were available, which was also fine. But the fish filet was cut into small bits stacked next to the scallops, and the lobster saffron sauce was too fishy by half, probably a sign that lobster coral (or roe) was a dominant ingredient. As with the appetizers, the idea was to complement mild seafood with a bolder sauce. But this one went too far. Desserts ended the meal on a high note. A trio of fine cr�me br�l�es was paired with tiny madeleines. Luxurious cocoa-bean sauce filled a small coffee-flavored tart, with a dollop of mascarpone ice cream on the side. And, finally, a thyme sauce and hazelnut ice cream topped a chocolate mousse of sorts. New or old, Le Paradou is not the place for a casual lunch; it will set you back. Our lunch bill for three people, with no wine, was $200. One of my lunchmates, a partner at a nearby law firm, had eaten lunch there before with a summer associate who had suggested it. When the bill came, he was not sure whether to think more highly of the associate — or less — for squeezing so much money out of the firm. But if some special occasion looms, or you have a nearby courtroom victory to celebrate, this is a terrific place to try. Visit soon, though. Yannick Cam’s staff need company.
Tony Mauro, the Supreme Court correspondent for Legal Times , has been reviewing restaurants on and off for 30 years.

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