Take it away! A couple of backup servers cleared plates and refilled water glasses (the second-tier servers were much more gracious). I watched our waiter fillet a sole at the next table. After he'd finished, he swiped up empty glasses and used flatware and dumped them unceremoniously on top of the fish carcass on his cart, still parked next to his customers. If he'd said, "I spit on you and your lousy fillet of sole," his performance couldn't have been surlier.
"Why do they hate us here?" my companion wondered aloud. "Nonsense," I said. "They couldn't possibly. Look how nice we are."
But I was having misgivings. Was frog legs Provençal a wise order? Were they really "fresh" from the Everglades? How many customers had ordered the frogs this week? Still, would I honestly be better off with the oysters or the beef tongue, sweet breads, creamed herring, steak tartare? All of which were starting to look like ticking time bombs? I swallowed hard.
Our entrées came, in a sense, as a relief. Those frog legs were fresh enough. They weren't the fattest little suckers I'd ever seen, but I'd have been willing to nibble every tender little morsel of white meat off those babies if I hadn't been prevented. Yes, prevented! Oh là, là! What depths has a kitchen sunk to when it no longer has the will to chop and sautée its own fresh garlic? What level of depravity could explain the use of old, bottled cloves? The sauce on those frog legs rendered them completely inedible. If someone had taken an entire Costco-sized can of prepped garlic and mashed it up with some Sysco butter substitute and then dumped the whole mess on my plate, it couldn't have been worse. Three bites and the taste of bottled garlic was all mine: I carried it with me for days, like an evil Siamese twin or a dual personality. That flavor evaded my every attempt to squelch it -- toothpaste, mouthwash, chocolate cookies, gin, sleeping pills; nothing could save me.
Meanwhile, Ms. A was working on her beef Wellington, a textbook example of how something ugly on the outside can contain a good heart. The beef itself was moist, rare, and buttery soft. The pastry, though, was despicably soggy, and the mushroom duxelle utterly lacked any flavor of mushrooms. This dish was a completely pointless exercise and, at $28.95, an expensive mistake.
The Wellington and the frog legs made us sad. Because nobody cared about those pitiful frogs or that miserable steer, they'd died in vain. The steer had breathed its last only to spend its final earthly moments wrapped in a sodden croute. I wondered what it would feel like to be a dead frog with a bunch of bottled garlic dumped on top of me -- this was blasphemy against the frog's essential and elemental froginess.
It seemed to me that it had been a long, long time since anybody in the kitchen at Café de Paris had taken pleasure in cooking. Or had given a damn about the exalted standards of French gastronomy from which these recipes originated. Somebody wheeled over a cart of homemade desserts, but we were too depressed to care.
Postscript: I did foray bravely back a few days later for lunch. My seafood crepe ($9.95; it's $15.95 on the dinner menu) wasn't as hideous as I'd feared, but neither did it restore my faith in this forsaken kitchen. The flavor was shrimpy and scallopy, not necessarily in a good way, the texture a little gritty. The crepe might have been delicious, but it was so thoroughly drowned in an uninteresting cream sauce and melted cheese that I couldn't tell. I ate about half of it and then had half of a tart with fruit ($4.95) that also was passable. But it had an off aftertaste, a mushy rather than crumbly crust, and a weird, clear cornstarch jelly holding the strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries together. There's a really easy recipe for an absurdly delicious berry tart (I know; I made it) in the July 6 issue of the New York Times. I wish somebody at Le Café de Paris would look it up and give it a whirl. A good fruit tart might restore their faith in la cuisine français.