"They poisoned my beer," I heard my friend April say over dinner.
"I said, '"It's noisy in here,'" she screamed.
At the time, the large table next to us sat empty. Once that filled (with 10 people), cramped quarters and an abundance of hard, flat surfaces created a din that could have drowned out a 50-piece, all-drum band. The clamor waxed and waned throughout dinner. At times, we spoke in civilized tones; at others, we just sat there, staring helplessly at one another through an impenetrable cacophony. Thus, Chez Papa is the last place I'd go for a romantic evening ("I missed you last night"/"You kissed my friend Mike?") or any other occasion that requires clear communication.
Still, you'll dine well, and you can avoid some of the racket by dropping by for lunch (also crowded, but not absurdly so). Chef Ola Fendert seems right at home knocking out Provençal-style bistro fare, and the concept is so awesome I hope another restaurateur steals it and opens a similar place in my neighborhood. Seventeen small plates can be combined with one another or with entrees and sides (white beans with truffle oil, frites with aioli) to create anything from an assortment of light noshes to a full, traditional meal.
Such versatility is exactly what people want from a restaurant these days, and in Chez Papa's case, they've been coming in droves. As we strolled up on a Monday, the door was blocked by a knot of locals, French speakers, and likely ticket-holders on the Hot New Restaurant Tour 2002. The staff handles the rush with veteran aplomb (two of the co-owners also own Plouf, where Fendert worked for nearly three years). Service is smooth and friendly, dishes arrive in a timely fashion, and despite the crowd out front a hostess saw us coming and seated us within minutes (fortunately, I had a reservation).
Inside, mirrors and sweeping windows add an illusion of space to the tight quarters. Bordeaux-toned walls, zinc-topped tables, and dark wood floors receive a futuristic accent via droplights reminiscent of the contraptions that bore down on Mulder during the final season of The X-Files. The wine bar is so tiny it could fit in my kitchen (hell, even the open kitchen would fit in my kitchen). The beverage selection, on the other hand, is massive: aperitifs, beer, and a whopping 90 wines from across the globe ($22-240, 25 choices by the glass). It was a hot summer night when we visited, so we began with whites -- a Hugel pinot blanc with a crisp note of green apple, and a superb, barely sweet De Loach early harvest Gewürztraminer -- before moving on to a reasonably priced (if somewhat flat) red, the Domaine Houchart Côtes de Provence.
Dinner started with a basket of baguette and an irresistible black olive tapenade. After that, numerous fine choices met a few that need to be rethought. In the latter category, tiny fillets of deep-fried whiting came with a smattering of Italian parsley and slices of fried lemon. The parsley overwhelmed the delicate flavor of the fish, and the dish was so dry we had to force ourselves to finish the entire portion. Beef tartare was charmingly presented at first: a small mound of minced fillet, topped with a quail egg and surrounded by dabs of Dijon, diced cornichons, capers, pepper, and salt. But then our waiter tossed it all together at the table, leaving a bland little patty (think rare hamburger) that looked lonely on its vast white plate with only a few slices of baguette to keep it company.
Far better to order the prawn brochettes, which please the eye as well as the palate. Here, a trio of juicy, succulent crustaceans was marinated in pastis (an anise-flavored liquor), grilled on a branch of rosemary, then served over a colorful salad of cherry tomatoes. Hints of licorice, pine, and the acidic tang of tomatoes melded beautifully with a thin lacquer of herb butter. Pan-roasted mussels are another sure-fire crowd-pleaser. Served in an iron pot, the dish surrounded the table with the rich aroma of garlic as it arrived; it came with an herb-flecked tomato broth that demanded to be sopped up with chunks of bread. Grilled rack of lamb was yet another winner. Accented with rosemary salt and herbs de Provence, the tender, smoky chops rested on a delectable, garden-fresh ratatouille.
Entrees didn't impress us to the same extent as the finer small plates. Chunks of lamb braised in red wine weren't as tender as they could have been; still, the lamb came with a nice assortment of baby carrots, baby Yukon Gold potatoes, sweet baby parsnips, and a dusting of fresh herbs. Grilled ahi topped with a pat of herb butter was accompanied by toothsome emergo beans and still more ratatouille. Like the lamb, it wasn't a culinary masterpiece, but as far as homey bistro fare goes both dishes hit the spot just fine.
Desserts, meanwhile, are spectacular. Those who lie awake at night wondering how to get more cacao into their diets should order the chocolate soufflé cake, a dark, decadent, whisper-light gâteau served with a sultry caramel sauce and a dollop of créme fraîche. In the tarte Tatin, chunks of cinnamony apple perched atop a square of puff pastry whose paper-thin layers shattered with a touch. The dish was finished perfectly with a silky vanilla chantilly. Figure in the impressive selection of teas and dessert wines (port, Sauternes, Beaumes de Venise, Hungarian Tokaji), and Chez Papa has all the bases covered -- and then some. Earplugs are optional, but you will need a reservation.