A shiny steel high-rise filled with lawyers isn’t an obvious location for a Parisian cafe, but in the wasteland of dining options that is the James Center area, La Parisienne Bistro & Café in the Williams Mullen building has chosen a receptive audience.
As expected for the neighborhood, the lunch crowd appears to be straight out of a corporate cafeteria, business casual 9-to-5ers who strolled across the street or took the elevator down from their cubicles. For those hoping to be transported to Paris for their lunch hour, the aesthetics alone won’t do the trick unless you’re looking for the Epcot version. The space is clean and modern, unlike most of Paris, with a few generic Parisian references such as French street signs and images of the Eiffel Tower.
The menu is a mix of traditional French and Belgian items: crepes; croque sandwiches; frites; escargots; salads and pastries. The croquet-monsieur ($9) and veggie are missing the dense, sturdy bread those sandwiches need to stand up to the heavy sauces, but are tasty and satisfying. The chicken on the tarragon chicken sandwich ($9.50) gets lost in a sea of mayonnaise, although the crusty roll and fresh bibb lettuce are the perfect setup. The fries on the side are deliciously crispy, better with a generous sprinkle of salt. The soup of the day is a unique take on lentils, puréed and flavored with bacon. With a baguette for dipping, it could make a lovely winter meal on its own.
Salads are well-edited and some of the best bets on the menu. The la Lyonnaise ($10), a delightful mix of fresh greens, seared lardons, blue cheese, and a perfectly poached egg in a light Dijon vinaigrette, is as deliciously, authentically French as they come, minus the cheese.
The dessert case is filled with pastries that are beautiful to look at but are mostly ho-hum. The mille feuille, meaning “thousand sheets,” alternating layers of puff pastry and pastry cream, is dense rather than light and flaky. Cheesecake pops are hit or miss. The tiramisu is good, while the key lime falls flat, with no citrus zing. Coconut lovers will enjoy the hefty macaroons, rich and dense and dipped in chocolate. — T.A.B.
So far, La Parisienne stays open for dinner only Wednesdays through Fridays. This part of downtown feels fairly empty after dark, which translates to easy street parking and no wait for a table, or about the opposite of Can Can. But the aroma of frites and the energy of live music make the space more welcoming than the usual office building, and the staff’s hospitality feels genuine.
On a recent Thursday, two musicians run through a familiar jazz catalog for diners who might be even more cheerful with improvements in nighttime ambiance. Fluorescent ceiling panels are non sequiturs, as is the flashing “open” neon at the door. A simple candle on each table would nudge the atmosphere along, and a server who would bring the check within 20 minutes of dessert would improve that all-important last impression.
Dinner can be modest with a savory crepe ($10-$14), or more pricey with a 12-ounce sirloin with sauce and frites for $26. A familiar starter, the onion soup ($6) is satisfyingly balanced beef broth, with the broiler’s char giving Gruyere and croutons more crunch than the usual mush.
Muddy pork chops ($18) are described on the menu as a grilled porterhouse chop simmered in a pickle-mushroom-cream sauce. What arrives on the square white plate looks closer to a spill — bright yellow mustard sauce drenching the dish, including the truffle-infused mashed potatoes, with chunks of dill pickles and coriander seeds. This version of mustard sauce may be a lost cause; the pork is tough and assaulted by the one-note flavoring.
Better is the chicken Provençale ($16), simmered in a dense, earthy ratatouille of mushrooms, tomatoes and herbs; the chicken is moist, ample and well-braised. A side of garlicky green beans glistens with oil but maintains its snap. For dessert, the Grand Marnier ($11) is sticky-sweet caramelized sugar and orange peel nestled with ice cream in a tender, eggy crepe that easily serves two, best cut with strong coffee and caloric amnesia.
A small lounge and bar area might be the bistro’s strong suit, with wine by the glass and a seafood-to-pâté appetizer list ($7-$12) that encourage after-work civility with a French flavor profile and a bit of downtown pioneering. — D.T.
La Parisienne Bistro & Cafe ($-$$)
200 S. 10th St.
Monday and Tuesday: 6:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.
Wednesday, Thursday and Friday: 6:30 a.m.-10 p.m.