Yannick Cam is back in DC — and at the top of his form. At Le Paradou, Cam's new downtown restaurant, the raw materials are very good, the flavors intense and clear, and the technique flawless. As soon as Le Paradou opened its doors, it joined Michel Richard Citronelle and Gerard's Place as one of Washington's top French restaurants.
At his first Washington restaurant, Le Pavillon–first a basement at 18th and K streets, then in grander quarters at Connecticut Avenue and L Street–Cam introduced Washington to nouvelle cuisine. With Cam in the kitchen and his then-wife, Janet Cam, overseeing the dining rooms, Le Pavillon was one of the best French restaurants in the country.
After it closed in 1990, Cam went on to cook at Yannick's, Coco Loco, Provence, El Catalan, and most recently Le Relais in Great Falls. But not until the opening of Le Paradou has Cam had another really good setting. The space that at times held Bice and Maloney and Porcelli has been redone by Adamstein & Demetriou in honey-colored woods and a palette of tans and beiges. A striking glass chandelier in the private dining room takes pride of place similar to that held by a Lalique glass table at Le Pavillon.
Intensity of flavor is a hallmark of Cam's cooking. Sometimes the flavors are pure and true, as in a creamy morel soup that achieves a woodsy depth. Sometimes they are best appreciated in contrast: an earthy, garlicky fricassee of escargots alongside a delicate polenta cake. Sometimes Cam uses similar flavors to intensify one another, as in a lobster purse combining sweet lobster meat with a sweet, gingery carrot jus. At times the combinations are startling–a delicate boudin blanc with truffles on a bed of fennel purée with the delicate but distinct flavor of oregano.
One of the best ways to appreciate the range of Cam's cooking is to order his tasting menu. Both the composition of each dish and their progression are important. A recent meal began with a tiny bowl of bouillabaisse tasting intensely of saffron. The first course was three Belon oysters with sea-urchin roe and osetra caviar, which the sommelier paired with a demi-sec Vouvray. These were followed by an artichoke soup with lobster meat, which tasted even sweeter because of the combination. A filet of Dover sole was accompanied by zucchini flowers stuffed with scallops, shrimp, and an intense parsley sauce.
Next, the richness of foie gras was accentuated by carmelized quince and pomegranate, cooked in a wine reduction. For a meat course, a single lamb chop with tomato confit and olive sauce was accompanied by perhaps my favorite item on the menu: ravioli filled with mashed potatoes. After this progression of courses, fruit desserts seemed in order, and the kitchen brought two–peach and pear with quince jus and cinnamon ice cream, and a sweet-tart strawberry rhubarb marmalade.
Such a dinner does not come cheap, though the prices are in line with comparable restaurants. The tasting menu is $100 a person. The alternative is a two-course menu, priced at $58. An à la carte bar menu–available in the bar area–offers appetizers priced from $8 to $12 and main courses from $24 to $27. The tariff at lunch is $28 for two courses. Additional courses may be added for à la carte prices.
The sommelier's wine pairings add $50 a person to the price of the tasting menu. Cam and Nicholas Rouet, his enthusiastic young sommelier, have assembled an impressive wine list, strong on French wines but with interesting California selections as well. It's an expensive list–the markup seems to be about three times cost across the board. It's possible to drink very well if you're willing to pay $50 to $100 a bottle. One might wish for more choices under $50. Rouet is knowledgeable and eager to help customers find the right wine in a price range they're comfortable with.
Service at Le Paradou, while always friendly, has been a little ragged in the restaurant's first weeks, but under the direction of manager Aykan Demiroglu becomes more seamless with each visit. It shows every sign of becoming a worthy partner to what is already some of the most accomplished cooking in the city.
ATMOSPHERE: Coolly elegant.
FOOD: Flawless cooking from a master chef.
SERVICE: Friendly and knowledgeable but erratic in the opening weeks.
PRICE: Lunch: $28 for two courses. Dinner: $58 for two courses; $100 for seven-course tasting menu.
VALUE: Expensive and worth it.
WINE LIST: An impressive and expensive list, primarily French.
BOTTOM LINE: A new restaurant that's already among the city's best.