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Restaurant Reviews

Cicada Song

From the moment La Cigale opened in May 2001, foodists have had their tongues out for whatever drips from Executive Chef Jean Pierre Blouin's brandished spoon. Only city ordinances have prevented some lifeguards of the larder from setting up tents under the canopy of this 185-seat jewel box in the little shopping mall near A1A on Delray's Atlantic Avenue.

Like sands through the hourglass, so go the meals of our lives. More than three years later, it's a pleasure to report that much of Blouin's star quality and restaurateur Francis Touboul's original elements prevail. The imposing, down-lit, high-ceilinged dining room still evokes a wistful sigh upon entrance. The blue backlighting behind the bar still serves as a sure-fire come-on for a cocktail. The handsomely upholstered banquettes could remain cozy through a one-sit read of War and Peace. And the bathrooms remain clean enough for minor surgical procedures.

Nor has the menu altered significantly. While amended daily with specials, the kitchen has not felt a need to go for exotica or sleight of spice. And its customers don't need all the fuss. La Cigale is a brasserie, after all, and that means simple, single dishes served in a relaxed setting. Could many local chefs be a better match for this kind of place? Blouin was trained by renowned chef Francois Clerc and has a résumé that includes five years at the Round Hill Hotel and Resort, an area of Jamaica once home to such persnickety but no-nonsense types as Noel Coward and the Windsors.

Maybe a little Coward rubbed off on Blouin. The Brittany native's experience seems to have conquered all impulses to be suspicious of a food's natural juices, to display his entire range on one plate, and to reject sympathetic tastes as boring. It has also allowed him to treat familiarity without contempt. Since there's a bus tray for every chef in South Florida who interprets making his mark as branding his initials into your taste buds with ancho chilis, jalapeño, umeboshi plums, russet rouilles, blackening, and a child's garden of peppers, it's almost shocking to encounter flavors that flow together softly, like chiffon overlays.

La Cigale defines its cuisine as traditional French, which takes us back a couple of decades to the recipes that Julia Child began to popularize in the 1950s -- sole meuniere, caesar salad, oysters on the half shell, and vichyssoise, among many others. Though a stampede of ethnic foods and a back-patting awareness of healthier eating undercut their popularity, the versatility of many of these recipes can be seen in the way Blouin has omitted their elaborate fabrication while keeping their fresh ingredients and rich sauces.

Sauces, in fact, star in many of the appetizers ($8 to $29) and entrées at La Cigale. Witness the classic chanterelle cream sauce surrounding the starter of pan-seared sweetbreads nesting in a healthy portion of sautéed spinach and tomato ($10). The chanterelles, mushrooms with a nutty apricot flavor, swim contentedly in a hearty, well-balanced sauce rich with heavy cream, garlic, and white wine. Moored in the middle of the plate is a collection of sweetbreads fresh enough that the calf may have been slaughtered in the back alley just after we ordered. Rarely has a thymus gland tasted better. And rarely has it had a sauce like this as a complement.

The escargots and mixed mushrooms ($9) show off another sauce to great advantage -- in this case, a garlic cream sauce dotted with chives. As anyone knows who can thank garlic for destroying an evening -- let alone a relationship -- it's a tricky herb for any cook and can easily drown out the "lead" tastes of a dish. Here, the ingredients of the sauce sing with a harmony to match the McGuire Sisters. The sauce helps make the snails, one of Blouin's signature dishes, the kind of dish you eat real slowly, and not only because the portion seems to shrink as the enjoyment of it grows.

The main courses include fish and seafood ($20 to $32) and meat and poultry ($19 to $28), with seven selections of light fare ($10 to $15), including quiche Lorraine, salad Nicoise, and even La Cigale Hamburger. There's also a list of salads and soups for those interested in lighter dining. Or lunching. La Cigale is offering a new lunch menu featuring sandwiches, salads, and some of the same appetizers that appear on the dinner menu.

At a recent dinner, no one was interested in light fare, preferring to peruse the carefully chosen wine list balanced between European and American varieties. A bottle of 2002 cabernet from California's Muirfield Winery (usually known for its pinot noirs) seemed a relaxed, reasonable compromise for a stubborn group determined to order both seafood and meat.

Blouin's sauces surrounded the centerpiece of each dish with care and support. Case in point? The garlic and basil and pine nuts of the pistou, or pesto, sauce sparked the full flavor of the beautifully seared Scottish salmon with roasted tomatoes and spinach ($24). Of course, the freshness of the fish could have been bettered only if you were fileting part of the catch from a boat five miles off the coast of Iceland, but a bad sauce can ruin a good fish much more easily than the reverse.

Then there was the four-spice sauce accompanying the roasted half duck with mashed potatoes and braised endive ($25). Four-spice sauce is used throughout the world, especially in French charcuterie cooking. Chefs often add other spices to the basics -- black or white pepper, nutmeg, ginger, and cinnamon or cloves -- but the result is the same. A well-prepared four-spice sauce brings an aromatic nuance and piquancy to any dish, especially in the case of game. And with the duck, under Blouin's careful hands? The sauce gave a Gallic embrace to the tenderly cooked bird whose meat -- even close to the bone -- could be easily retrieved with only minimal use of knife and fork. Even de Gaulle would have smiled.

The desserts (all around $7) break the usual brûlée barrier. We shared a sweet apple tart flambé, an experience that marred an otherwise stellar evening of eating. After the tart was lit at the table, the flames persisted, and persisted, and persisted, until the phyllo crust had turned black around the edges and we were forced to put out the fire with our forks. Any intrinsic flavor that remained could not compete with the embers, and we chose to forego the final course.

It wasn't as if the servers, who were standing discreetly in the distance, hadn't noticed. And, if they were laughing, who could blame them? The incident was farcical: worried diners poised over a small plate, forks clashing urgently over the blue flame.

Which brings us to the question of service. Our sweet, thoughtful waiter for the evening was casual enough, though nervous. He confessed that it was his first night on the job.

As compensation, he had a small army of helpful older staff members, many of whom committed a great disservice to the kitchen. A waiter should never approach a table asking, "Is everything alright?" (three times during the meal) or "Are you enjoying your meal?" (twice). These questions show, intended or not, a lack of confidence in the kitchen and an inferiority complex that results in fishing for compliments. If a waiter wants to check on a customer, all he has to do is pour water, walk by, or say, "Can I get you anything?" It's the customer's prerogative to either exclaim or complain.

This quibble will not and has not stopped La Cigale ('the cicada") from continuing to create the same buzz it created when it opened. In the middle of a dining landscape littered with also-rans and one-season-wonders, this rare consistency merits a Gallic salute, the considerable cash needed to pay for a meal here, and many more visits.

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D.B. Tipmore

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