IND Monthly — 01202010
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Impressive Debut
Mary Tutwiler

Big plates with a tiny amount of food on them signal one of two things: Either you’re going to go home hungry, or you are in for a treat. The nouvelle cuisine approach to plating is about artistic presentation to fire the imagination, and provoke the palate with small bites of intense flavor. In other words, less is more when it comes to haute cuisine.

The amuse-gueule (literally mouth-amuser) sent out by chef-owner Justin Girouard was just that — a pearly poached mussel in a drop of creamy curry sauce set off by the contrasting crunch of a sweet-shellacked peanut. One bite set the tone for the evening and never relented. Dinner at the French Press is a revelation in a town where the bar seems to be set higher and higher with the opening of each new fine dining restaurant.

Dinner, served on Friday and Saturday nights only, offers a limited menu, changing every week to reflect the seasons.

Friday night, it was very difficult to choose between three cold weather delectations, seared fois gras, proscuitto- wrapped sweetbreads and confit of rabbit. I went with the rabbit, hiding beneath buttery Parmesan gnocchi and a scattering of fava beans. The flavors knit together in a way that identifies a well-thought-out and executed dish, layered and subtle. The brilliant green fava beans, rarely found on menus here, were a perfect foil for the richness of the gnocchi and rabbit. My notes, scribbled on a crumpled sheet of paper, post-gnocchi, simply say, “yum.” Pray that this dish stays on the menu through the winter.

The cioppino, a tomato-based fish stew that hails from San Francisco, has just found a new home on Vermilion Street. Girouard knows his classical technique, simmering the seafood shells to create a broth that is enriched by actually grinding the shells to paste to intensify the flavors.

Poached in this brilliant liquid are mussels, clams, calamari, shrimp and lobster. Every bivalve, crustacean and cephalopod was perfection of its order, the baby squid so toothsomely tender it was almost an affront to bite. But the real triumph of this dish is the sauce, which I finished off with a spoon, then a mop of ciabatta.

Spaetzle (a plump little German noodle) is a novelty here in Lafayette. Girouard turns a Louisiana twist on it, adding mashed sweet potatoes to the dough. Gently sweet, they are a much lighter bed than traditional mashed sweet potatoes for the seared duck breast, served in a rare pink fan over a satsuma glacé.

The limited wine list is carefully chosen. The Laetitia brut cuvee, a sparkling California chardonnay, comes by the glass, and is a terrific apéritif that could continue with dinner. We went with the Tedeschi Amarone, another rarity on Lafayette wine lists, but with its ripe fruit cherry flavors tempered with violet and liquorice, it’s well paired to the big flavors on French Press’ menu.

If there was one disappointment, it was dessert, which leaned toward kiddie comfort food: beignets to dip in dark chocolate fondue and a chocolate cookie fudge sundae.

After such an accomplished dinner, I was expecting the same sophistication and brightness. However, Friday was only the third dinner service of this new restaurant; I’ll be checking back soon.

To see the weekend dinner menu, go to the restaurant’s Web site, thefrenchpresslafayette.com. The French Press also serves breakfast and lunch Wednesday through Sunday. Call 233-9449 for reservations.
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