By Suzanne Parker
First impressions do matter, and host Youssef Echyabi at L’Artiste in Astoria blew it big time. He greeted us in a T-shirt emblazoned with a witticism that included the “f-word.” We know that formality may be a thing of the past, but we don’t think that dress down needs to go that far down. We had a child in our party and that wasn’t something he needed to see. To add insult to injury, a female member of our party arrived early, and was not offered so much as a glass of water, let alone a cocktail while she waited.
So we were off on the wrong foot, before so much as glimpsing a menu at what would have otherwise struck us as a cute little French place decorated with French and culinary-themed jumbo graphics. When we had all assembled, things started to look up. Tepid glasses of water were poured for all, the temperature, no doubt, a tell of Continental authenticity. Drink orders were taken, menus proffered, and specials recited.
Having our expectations lowered at the outset amplified our pleasant surprise at the high quality of our appetizers. Sea scallops en croute embodied everything we love about French cuisine. Three sizable scallops were expertly seared, and rested on a light crisp puff pastry bed blanketed by a creamy leek compote.
Salmon tartar tasted fresh and clean. An attractive multicolored terrine included layers of raw salmon, beet and avocado mousse was drizzled with a ponzu citrus vinaigrette.
Escargots, sans shells, come poached in a cream and truffle broth. The menu alludes to winter vegetables in the broth, but what we found seemed more seasonal like bits of asparagus and cauliflower. This is a deliciously lush and earthy variation instead of the usual garlic-butter-in-the-shells preparation.
As so often happens, it seems, the entrees didn’t quite measure up to the perfection of appetizers. The best of the lot was the seared duck breast. The meat was meltingly tender and made even more toothsome by an orange beure noisette sauce (orange butter hazelnut). It was paired with a lackluster winter squash puree.
A medium New York strip steak arrived, rather than the rare that was ordered. It was juiceless, although a creamy pepper sauce compensated somewhat. The star of this entree was a mound of roast potatoes joined with a mélange of other vegetables bound together by something creamy.
Braised lamb shank with mushroom polenta was bland and much too heavy for the season.
When we dithered between the sea bass and the salmon, Echyabi sang the praises of the former. What was presented was not the “in papillote” version described on the menu, but pan seared over a bed of spinach. The bass was nicely crisped on the outside and enhanced with a carrot coulis. It struck just the right note for summer supping. The down side was that it was $3 more than the sea bass on the menu. Sea bass appears this way on their online menu with red bliss potatoes included for a dollar less than we were charged.
Desserts here are all house-made and classically French. We doubt that any of them would disappoint, but especially recommend the cold sweet bliss of the French Coffee Panna Cotta.
The Bottom Line
L’Artiste is a bit of a mixed bag. What was good here was really good, and there was more good than not. The prices, given the quality of the food, are fair. The service needs fine tuning, especially in the communications department. And, Mr. Echyabi, unless your secret goal is to run a biker bar, please lose that T-shirt.
Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
Astoria, NY 11103
Price Range: Appetizers: $8 –12; Entrees: $18—24
Cuisine: Modern French
Setting: Small, modern, inviting.
Service: Mostly efficient, but timing and communication need fine tuning.
Hours: Tuesday–Friday 5–11 pm, Saturday 11 am–11 pm, Sunday 11 am–10 pm. Dinner & weekend brunch
Alcohol: Full bar
Children: Welcome, but owner’s tee shirt may need censoring.
Credit cards: Yes