The two rooms have an unusual setup, with the dining facilities connected by a small courtyard that serves as a waiting area. To me, the yard's iron grillwork, gray slate tiles, and leopard-print chairs brought to mind an upscale mall, but one of my companions liked the outdoor vibe, even if the heat lamp was dormant during one chilly visit. La Table's interior -- as designed by Michael Brennan, the mastermind behind the look at both Dine and Julia -- is equally schizophrenic. The 70-person room is awash in muted browns and tans, with each table featuring a little thrift store lamp and the aforementioned leopard chairs, which look left over from some Zsa Zsa Gabor movie. The strangest feature is a mural above the exposed kitchen area, in which Brennan appears to have downed some liquid acid while pondering French archetypes. Here, the Statue of Liberty comes to life as a hot circus freak, while an elderly lady shows off her enormous calf, and a cat peers out from behind an eye patch. I half expected our server to swing to the table on a trapeze.
Alas, she came on foot, bringing us water -- which, with its faint flavor of cucumber, provided one of the few true surprises of my visits. The wine list is extensive, split between French and Californian offerings, priced from $20 on up. As crafted by chef Marc Rasic, who worked at Elisabeth Daniel downtown and trained under Michel Guérard at France's Les Prés d'Eugénie, La Table's dishes come a la carte and reasonably priced, with appetizers ranging from $6 to $9 and entrees from $10 to $17.
Perhaps we should've lowered our expectations once we saw the prices, because the starters were decidedly mixed. Frisée salad -- which I've always considered high-end coleslaw -- was impressive, mostly because of its tender, braised oxtail and light, vinegary dressing, but both the mixed-green salad and the guinea hen terrine failed to make an impact. While one of the things I like most about French food is the chefs' refusal to skimp on salt, the mixed greens seemed infused with the stuff, as if the ingredients had been mated in some ill-conceived genetics lab. Meanwhile, the terrine was more depressed than pressed, enlivened only slightly by the sweet persimmon chutney.
Rasic's kitchen improved with the entrees, which were lighter takes on multiregional specialties. The halibut was robustly flavored, awakened by a lemon compote, and the beef cheeks -- braised to the point of spreadability in a stunning bourguignonne sauce -- made certain that I'd never look at a cow's face the same way again. Only the pot-au-feu was subpar, but then again, it takes a certain kind of genius to make blanched chicken go zing. (The fingerling potatoes were a nice try, but they could only do so much.)
Desserts were mildly disappointing. The chocolate tartelette was superb, with a hint of Earl Grey bringing out the richness, but the orange crème brûlée, though as large as a discus, didn't stand out. The cannelés de bordeaux, an egg-driven cake with crème anglaise and caramel glaze, was heavy and overly yolky. And the house coffee, my friend declared, was good, but not as good as Peet's -- a statement sure to irk a million Frenchmen.
Hoping for a more consistent experience, I returned soon afterward to La Table du Chef. Its 50-person room has a far more inviting aura than La Table's, with extremely high ceilings and several massive lily pad paintings. Between the lush green walls and the gleaming multicolored wine-bottle display, I felt transported, possibly beyond the sea (an homage to Charles Trenet's 1940s hit "La Mer," perhaps?). Our waiter aided this off-kilter quality by accompanying our dishes with odd little video game noises, mumbling "Zzzoom" when bringing a soup and "Sprizzz" with a dessert.
Du Chef features two tasting menus -- a three-courser for $42 and a six-course one for $65 -- but we opted to go a la carte to expand our options. While the prices at La Table du Chef are higher than those at La Table ($7 to $19 for appetizers and $24 to $28 for entrees), it offers a more colorful, exotic presentation, with crazily shaped plates that could easily poke out an eye and an intense amuse-bouche made from crushed and whipped fish. The appetizers were a step above La Table's. The pumpkin velouté was velvety smooth, with a keen flavor set apart by the inclusion of truffle oil and veal sweetbreads (straight from the thymus gland in the throat), and the pan-seared foie gras was near perfect, the orange/wine sauce complementing the rich, gooey meat. The only misstep was the oeuf a la moscovite, a gelled lobster consommé and osetra caviar concoction that made me pity Russians all over again. (I'd been set to try the sautéed hedgehogs, thinking this might be the closest I'd ever come to "gerbiling," only to find out they're just a type of mushroom.)
Unfortunately, the evening soon ground to a halt. One of the distinct qualities about fancy French places is the long march toward the check, in which you eat and sit and eat some more. But this night, we just sat. And sat. When our main courses finally arrived, they were lukewarm. My Columbia River sturgeon survived the best, mainly because the white bean purée with garlic-roasted snails was such a hearty accompaniment. The venison's potato crust felt cold and chewy, while the meat was rare instead of the requested medium-rare; the glazed sweetbreads came rubbery and blandly seasoned with cardamom and cinnamon.
Hoping to cleanse the palate, we selected several desserts, including one that our waiter described as "kick-ass." Happily, he was right, as we couldn't get enough of the hazelnut and praline quenelles -- two slightly chilled, whipped lumps of heavenly, nutty sweetness.
Trying to sort out all the mixed messages of La Table and La Table du Chef, I thought of the wicker basket filled with small loaves of bread by the restaurant's entrance. Following our first visit, the host readily handed one to each of us as we left, but after our second trip, the maitre d' seemed hesitant to part with the bread, until he noticed us staring down at the basket. La Table certainly has potential, but until it sweats the details, it'll be as nondescript as the neighborhood it resides in.