It was Saturday night, it was Fleet Week (we'd been treated to an unexpected fireworks display the night before), and there were a number of French sailors dressed up like adorable dolls with striped jerseys and red pom-pomed berets on the sidewalk outside. Passers-by in a flashy convertible cooed "Hiya, sailors!" to their evident delight, as we turned our car over to the valet. We were led through a noisy bar area and past a large front room to an even noisier back room, getting a brief impression of much brass and flash: A tin ceiling, hanging glass light fixtures, and a mosaic tiled floor, all attractive, did little to dampen the din. (It looked as if almost all of the owners' other restaurants could fit inside this space.) But the general feeling was of festivity, though it bordered on the manic where we were, tucked away in the somewhat cramped back room, adjacent to the service-area doors.
The oversized menu offered the four of us (we were joined by my friend Jon) plenty of choice: Under the Franglais heading "Les Appetizers" it listed 16 dishes, plus an unlisted soup of the day, with a dozen more under "Les Plats Principaux." Each description amounted to a recipe ("ahi tuna tartar with almond, capers, citron, and argan oil," the last ingredient a new one on me). But when the clumsily overdecorated plates arrived, there seemed to be even more on them than we had expected. They looked fussy and slightly amateurish.
The "beet coloriage" was a perfectly nice salad of roasted beets, interestingly flavored with nutty sesame seeds. The pan-seared scallops were also OK, with sautéed chanterelle mushrooms and orange truffle sauce. The four big chunks of roasted bone marrow came with garlic croutons and crunchy flakes of fleur du sel, a rich and decadent way to begin a meal. Still, these starters felt correct but uninspired; the bone marrow came the closest to what I'd expect from a mid-range restaurant in France, but there was nothing about these dishes that inspired excitement. The one complete misfire was the poached pig trotter carpaccio that I ordered, irresistible to me because I'd never seen such a thing before (the essential adjective "poached" breaking up the dissonance between "pig" and "carpaccio," something of a joke on the inadvisable pork tartare). The carpaccio looked like paper-thin slices of charcuterie, but at the touch of a fork, the circles dissolved into mush -- and tasteless grey mush at that -- obscured by a truffled shallot vinaigrette. A perplexing dish, implying a lot of effort in the service of not much.
My disaffection continued with our main courses, adequate but unexciting renditions of bistro classics, such as a generous rack of lamb (a lofty presentation of three ribs crisscrossed with two, sided with an appealing rendition of the familiar baked tomato topped with Provençale herbs and speared with a branch of thyme) and a still-moist rabbit under a creamy sauce. I wasn't quite sure why my daube of duck leg à l'orange, served on mashed potatoes in a lake of liquid, had salty, untraditional olives added to its sweet sauce, except perhaps to emphasize the orientation of the menu toward Provence. I was surprised that John insisted on ordering the wood-grilled ahi tuna with seared foie gras: It seemed an obvious take on the "tuna melt" famously invented by George Morrone, and he'd had the original the night before, at Tartare. This one sat on a bed of creamy celery root purée rather than the crisp potato cake topped with spinach of Morrone's version; the large tuna steak was less expertly cooked, and the truffle-port sauce darker, sweeter, and heavier. "Yesterday's was a dish in which everything worked together, and this is more like an assemblage of separate ingredients," John said. (I note that the version at Tartare is $29 and La Suite's $26. Close enough for jazz.)
For dessert, we shared a trio of soft little pots de crème, pleasantly and variously flavored with chocolate, jasmine tea, and orange, and big firm profiteroles stuffed with hazelnut ice cream and topped with a ganache perfumed with Grand Marnier. (The suggested accompanying snifter of the special 100th-anniversary Grand Marnier would have set us back $22. I hasten to add that La Suite's wine list is quite decent, fairly priced, and offers an especially nice list of options by the glass. Just a tiny bit of overreaching at the grande finale!) We had to try the plateau de fromage because the temptingly laden cart had rattled by us many times in the course of the evening. The extremely hyper server who helped us offered us a choice of three of its more than two dozen cheeses, and in the end we got four, including a lovely American camembert and a goat cheese he included as his gift. They were all perfectly à point, but they were cut (with a lot of tra-la-la) in the tiniest portions imaginable, dressed up with two scoops of a fig preserve and more slices of walnut bread than the cheese required: $14 seemed a bit steep for more style than substance.
We'd spent about $70 a person (including a bottle of Trimbach pinot gris and a Lalande red, both from the low end of the list), and although we all know you can spend a lot more at a fancy French restaurant, I left vaguely dissatisfied with the meal I'd had. The ambition outstripped what the kitchen was able to turn out. Too many dishes, too many well-meaning but clumsy decorative touches. And I was pretty sure that that carpaccio would have to go.
But it was the rabbit, one of the simpler and more successful dishes we'd had, that was no longer on the menu when I returned with my parents for an early dinner a couple of weeks later. We parked at dusk, under the palm trees, just as the parking restrictions on the Embarcadero lifted (luckily we had enough quarters to plunk into the greedy meters, which run until 7 p.m., seven nights a week). At 6 o'clock on a weeknight the place was much quieter, and we were guided to a pleasant semicircular booth in the front room.
I'd been amazed that my friends had skipped over the warm lobster salad and the sweetbread fricassee at our previous meal, but I knew that tonight my mother would choose the former, my father the latter. My mom enjoyed the salad hugely, a carefully extracted claw displayed alongside a petite lobster tail in its shell, glazed with a bit of citrus aioli and sided with a heap of naked arugula leaves and a few clumps of fresh herbs (with a boat of lovely orange vinaigrette to dress them) as well as a papery round of dried orange, a delicious touch. My father felt that the strong port-wine ginger sauce served its chewy wild mushrooms better than the overcooked sweetbreads alongside. I was quite happy with my tomato confit tarte, the softly cooked tomato apparently added separately to the still-crisp puff pastry base, topped with a cloud of soft, faintly goaty Montrachet crème fraîche and surrounded by a ribbon of basil purée (I'd have preferred a few fresh basil leaves, especially in a house that scatters fresh herbs as décor as freely as La Suite does) and a few bitter, under-roasted garlic cloves. Bitter, in fact, seemed to be a minor theme at La Suite (as in those curious olives in the orange sauce); I thought several sauces, including the sweetbreads' and the tuna's, had a bitter undertone.
Both my parents' main courses suffered from the same complaint: meat that looked beautiful when cut into (filet mignon and Colorado rack of lamb roasted medium-rare in the wood oven), but that seemed dry (the steak especially juiceless, missing the silky texture of great filet mignon), dull, and nearly tasteless (increasingly one misses the faintly gamy snap of lamb). My own "Provençale bouillabaisse" -- chunks of monkfish, black cod, and dory, with three mussels, two clams, and two shrimp, covered in a sludge of faintly saffroned and Pernod-infused tomato soup, with little toasts and ramekins of grated Gruyère and a rouille that tasted oddly of dishwater -- failed my test. Would I have liked this dish purely on its own merits if I had never had fabulous bouillabaisses in France and elsewhere; if I didn't know what bouillabaisse could be; if it had been called, say, fish stew (or soupe de poissons, as some other places slyly have it)? No. The best thing on the table was the à la carte cone of thin, crisp, herb-dusted frites.
This time we finished with a bittersweet chocolate soufflé that could have used a couple more minutes in the oven, and a stunningly good cheese plate. I was still quite hungry after my disappointing main course, so my father and I shared a degustation, eight flawless selections from the cheese cart (and this time the much soberer server cut us much more generous portions). The impeccable Livarot, Reblochon, and Roquefort we chose were happily joined by more unusual cheeses -- including a strong-flavored sheep's milk cheese from Corsica, a runny Epoisses-like cheese called L'Edel de Cleron, and a wacky-looking herbed cheese cured in beer, Boulette d'Avesnes -- that I would never have chosen on my own, but that turned out to be quite pungent and exciting. The excellent cheese sent us out into the street on a high. But it wasn't enough. I thought of my little cousin, who'd been eager, at a recent family reunion, to tell me all the French words she knew: "I know Bonjour, and Mon nom est Elizabeth, and Au revoir, and Oy vey."