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Venue Review: La Residence

Charming looks, cooks
La Residence
By "Greg Cox"

At the ripe old age of 28, La Residence is the grande dame of Triangle gourmet restaurants. Its 1976 debut predates even that of the venerable Magnolia Grill by a decade. And its culinary dance card over the years has read like a who's who of area chefs (including the late Bill Neal, founder of Crook's Corner, and Magnolia Grill's Ben and Karen Barker).

But as it approached its third decade, in its third location, La Residence was feeling its age. The dining rooms in the stately Dutch colonial had grown dowdy, and the kitchen was showing telltale signs of resting on its laurels. La Rez, as it had saucily -- some may say desperately -- taken to calling itself, was due for a makeover.

And that's just what it got during the first six weeks of this year. When it reopened, in time for Valentine's Day, the dining rooms had been redone in fetching shades of persimmon, cream and Dijon mustard. The rear of the building had been opened up, transforming the previously cramped bar into an inviting space with newly buffed hardwood floors.

For all the changes, La Residence wisely kept the focus on the Provencal charm that had won it acclaim as one of the Triangle's most beautiful restaurants. With impressionist paintings, ladder-back chairs at tables draped in white over floral linens, and above all that irresistibly charming arched fireplace, it was as romantically alluring as ever. The lush greenery and trellises of its sheltered patio remain a favorite backdrop for wedding receptions.

If only the restaurant had paid the same attention to little details such as making sure the tops of salt and pepper shakers are clean. And big details such as the quality of service. Why go to all the trouble to get a nose job, after all, if you're going to let your mascara run?

As part of the makeover, La Residence wooed back chef Michael Seese, whose deft hand had won the restaurant a considerable following in the mid-'90s. With a monthly changing menu of French-inflected new American fare, Seese has lost no time in demonstrating that he still has the touch.

His cream of asparagus soup, for starters, is oh-so-French, its lavish creaminess and intense vegetable essence subtly brightened by lemon creme fra"che. And handmade roasted butternut squash ravioli with sage, hazelnuts and brown butter sauce is a perfectly choreographed ballet of flavors.

Translucent garnet slices of beef carpaccio, arranged on the plate like stained glass windows framed in arugula and shaved Asiago cheese, practically dissolve on the tongue. At the other end of the spectrum, Prince Edward Island mussels are boldly rustic with chunks of locally made chorizo and diced tomato in a garlicky broth of white wine and lemon juice.

An entree of salmon Wellington is a well-executed variation on a classic theme, the flavor of the fish complemented by a delicate -- but not too delicate -- mustard cream sauce. Equally fine-tuned is the pat of foie gras butter that melts before your eyes atop a New York shell steak, trickling into a Chateauneuf-du-Pape demi-glace in a trifecta of luxurious flavors.

Leg of lamb arrives in the form of a half-dozen moist, rosy-centered slices flanked by a pan roast of vegetables and a hearty slab of celery root gratin. The lamb is good, but it's the gratin that will haunt you.

That's not to say that Seese is infallible. His venison tenderloin could be more tender, and the blood orange beurre blanc that accompanies jumbo lump crabmeat in phyllo could taste more of blood oranges. But such minor quibbles are about as far as criticism of his cooking goes.

The same can be said for pastry chef Stephen Kennedy's artfully presented desserts. His Granny Smith apple mousse is a refreshing change of pace, and his frozen lemon almond souffle is pure mouth-puckering ambrosia for anyone with a weakness for citrus. But a dessert pairing a creme brulee presented in an espresso cup and an equally miniature portion of minted fruit salad achieves cuteness at the price of feeling like you aren't getting your money's worth.

The wine list is extensive, with an emphasis on California and French labels. It's deserving of better glassware. In a restaurant the caliber of La Residence, it's a shame to be served a $12 glass of Pecota cabernet sauvignon in a glass that appears to have been supplied by a Libbey's outlet.

It's even more of a shame to have to endure the sort of unprofessional performance by a waitperson that my wife and I encountered. The offenses are too numerous to list, but they started with making us feel rushed from the outset and finished with coffee cups that stood empty for -- well, they were never refilled. Suffice it to say that the service that night was among the worst I've encountered in nine years as a restaurant critic.

I'd chalk it up as an off night, but the evidence indicates otherwise. Of the four times I've dined at La Residence in the past year -- two before the makeover and two after -- only that one night's experience was memorably bad. But none of the four measured up to the standards you'd expect of the grande dame of gourmet.

But the looks — and the cooking — are back in form.

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Jul 2 2004 12:00AM - Triangle.com - Greg Cox

At the ripe old age of 28, La Residence is the grande dame of Triangle gourmet restaurants.

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