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Louie Louie à la Français

I didn't head for the beach on my vacation. Instead I searched out used bookstores and homed in on the cookbook sections like a cockleshell-bedecked pilgrim sighting Compostela. On an inclement day, as rain pelted pleasantly overhead, I uncovered a musty tome entitled Where Paris Dines, a bon vivant journalist's quirky collection of reviews of the Parisian dining scene between the wars. The Zagat ancestor is rich with memories of eateries large and small peopled by debutantes and boulevardiers, "lusty eaters and stalwart bottlemen," recalling a time when simple dishes showcasing the fresh tastes of the finest ingredients were a culinary common cause. The legacy of this Paris of my food fantasies lives on in Chez Louis, David "David's Cookies" Liederman's new Midtown eatery, where megadeals percolate, ladies lunch, and tourists in half-Clevelands have their first taste of foie gras.

Summer was just beginning when I made my first trip to Louis's place. The pale yellow walls and minimalist decor had little in common with the dark-wooded trenchermen's hangouts of my Gallic dreams. Yet somehow the easy informality of the room, the warm welcome, and the way the wine bottle was left out on the table even if you'd only ordered a single glass evoked the less harried era of two-hour lunches spent in animated conversation and midnight dinners near Les Halles. Perhaps it was the food--classic bistro or American nouvelle, the taste of the ingredients glistening through with laserlike intensity. My bone-in chicken salad ($19.95; since replaced, I'm told, with a boneless variant) was crisp-skinned and moist-fleshed enough to make me wish I'd ordered the roast fowl entrée to have more bones to suck on. My friend's three soft-shell crab main ($24.95) replayed the same textural melodies with the added sea tang of the crustacean. The tabletop bottle, an inspired combination of conviviality and marketing, worked its wiles as we poured seconds to toast a kitchen that lets food be food. I was hooked.

Details

Chez Louis
74 West 50th Street, 333-3388.
open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday - Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Hours will change as Radio City construction continues.
All major credit cards, limited wheelchair access.

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Neighboring boutiques were featuring fall duds by the time I got to return. The menu, though, still spotlighted summer delights like the massive wedges of August-ripe beefsteak tomato that combined with teensy haricots verts, a pile of mesclun, and flaky medallions of salmon as the salad of the day ($19.95). The roasted mushroom and garlic appetizer that preceded it ($12.50), a meaty portobello combined with the sweet unctuousness of allium, was tasty, but blown away by the salad entrée. My special appetizer was a tomato lover's bliss--thick slices drizzled with a mildly tart dressing that let the sun-ripened sweetness of the fruit shine through. I indulged my carnivorous tendencies and scarfed down a classic burger on a soft roll adorned with a hunk of more ripe tomato and a slice of red onion that recalled the barbecues of my youth ($15.95). The accompanying mound of frites added an appropriately French touch. As we shared a wedge of diabolically rich fallen chocolate soufflé cake, we poured yet another glass from that bottle that remained tantalizingly within reach and gave a new twist to the words to the old hymn agreeing that in matters gastronomic, it's a gift to be simple.

 
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