Updated: Sunday, March 26, 2006, 3:01 AM
Before dinner at Slate Bleu in Doylestown, I hadn't eaten a proper quenelle of pike since I tried in vain to make them years ago at cooking school in France.
Even then, I understood why those delicate fish dumplings were high on the list of endangered dishes handed down from French master Auguste Escoffier. They're labor-intensive, from the rich frangipan panada binder to the delicate shaping with spoons (I never could get that perfect oval shape) to the equally involved sauce of bisquey crayfish Nantua. And after all that work, I still couldn't decide whether they were glorified gefilte fish or just another excuse to douse ground-up fish with melted beef suet.
After my intriguing dinners at Slate Bleu, though, I'm no longer so ambivalent about quenelles, not to mention a host of other nearly forgotten bistro specialties. Chef-owner Mark Matyas, who comes by his classic French leanings from training at the Cordon Bleu in Paris and years as executive chef at New York's La Grenouille, skips the suet and all but a touch of panada in favor of lighter egg whites and cream. His quenelles also look more like caviar-dabbed bosoms than the usual ovals. But my, are they tasty, as light and jiggly as fish-flavored clouds glazed with a rich orange sauce of crayfish cream.
I suppose Georges Perrier's Le Bar Lyonnais, the only other restaurant I know that serves quenelles, might also have convinced me. But Slate Bleu is certainly a worthy stop for any lover of classic French cooking roaming outside the city, and it's a unique addition to Bucks County's dining scene.
Slate Bleu occupies the former Cafe Arielle in downtown Doylestown, in the barnlike livery attached to the historic Agricultural Works. Matyas and his wife, Susan, longtime Yardley residents who tired of the commute to New York, have added a second-floor dining room with a view of Doylestown's slate-covered rooftops (thus inspiration for the name). But most of the activity centers on the downstairs dining room dominated by a large soapstone-topped bar.
The bar adds a casual mood to the room, but its big square U also cuts an awkwardly large chunk from the surrounding dining area furnished with banquettes and mirrors. The result is a low-energy lay-out exacerbated by equally lethargic servers, who were well-meaning but so unprepared, they struggled to rise to (let alone pronounce) the menu's level of sophistication.
In contrast, Matyas' cooking is like a vivid blast from Paris past. Pale links of homemade boudin blanc sausage, their stuffing of pureed veal, pork and chicken touched with nutmeg and five-spice, are served alongside apples poached in vanilla and brandy. Tenderly cooked oysters, delicately poached just a breath past raw, came tucked into their shells beneath a warm blanket of lightly curried sabayon.
There were escargots, of course, swimming beneath a pastry crust in a green pool of herb butter. A lightly creamed chestnut soup was an earthy tan broth studded with the snap of whole chestnuts.
Slate Bleu likes to tout itself as a bargain compared to La Grenouille ($47 Manhattan quenelles for $13 in Bucks County), but it's still pretty expensive by most measures, with entrees that climb into the high $20s. Only the seared foie gras appetizer with grapes, though, was out-of-line at $19, about $5 higher than the best in Center City.
The lobster ravioli appetizer was also pricey, but there was so much sweet lobster meat tucked into those golf ball-sized dumplings (nearly half a lobster!) that they were more than worthy.
Matyas also gives his dishes the detailed work they deserve. One Thursday night special of selle d'agneau was a rarely seen work of butcher's art - a saddle of lamb loin rolled with herby chicken mousse into medallions of tender meat. Seared shrimp took on an exotic blush with a sauce made of reduced carrot essence, ginger and anise-scented Ricard.
Other, more straightforward dishes simply highlight an experienced touch, such as a classic trout meuniere, dusted with flour and browned beneath a grain mustard butter sauce with sauteed endive. Or the thick fillets of sea bass tossed with sweet segments of juicy grapefruit in a butter sauce tinted with Campari. Or a textbook steak au poivre with just the right flicker of heat to hightlight a good New York strip.
There were a couple of lesser efforts - a thin-brothed mussel soup, vegetables a la Grecque that lacked the usual acidic bite, and a fragrant but dry take on a vegetarian Morroccan tagine, which our server presented with a lid-lifting tableside flourish: "Here's your tangerine!"
The small flaws in Matyas' cooking are of less concern than such naive gaffes in service, which chip away at the restaurant's credibility with a parade of mispronunciations bordering on camp (with a garbled cheese list for the grand finale).
Slate Bleu's tiny wine list is another wasted opportunity, neglecting a world of great bistro wines for an uninspired commercial selection that offers little of interest between the $28 Beaujolais plonk and the $65 Gigondas.
With desserts, though, Matyas serves a nice reminder of this restaurant's strongest suit. From the incredibly silky dark chocolate mousse to the airy Grand Marnier souffle to delicate profiteroles filled with homemade pistachio and coffee ice creams, it's clear that Slate Bleu puts its heart into giving French classics some renewed respect.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.
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