C'est La Belle Vie

I had become emotionally involved with the turnip ravioli--giddy, protective, strangely proud. You've got to taste this, I kept telling my dinner companions. But only one bite. Back off!

Incredibly, the desserts are as excellent as the other offerings: If you consider yourself a student of the pastry arts, you simply must come here. In the Warm Chocolate and Chestnut Bric ($6.50), flaky, semitransparent pastry wraps around a moist, dense chocolate-and-chestnut mixture that combines with bourbon crème anglaise to make an intoxicatingly fragrant concoction, each bite of which renders you purringly content as the steamy chocolate perfume caresses you... I'll stop there, since it seems that only pornographic phrasing can do this morsel justice.

La Belle Vie's other desserts are equally wonderful: The custard Napoleon ($6) looks like art, its three layers of espresso custard between wings of fudgy chocolate-lace cookies. The stingingly tart cranberry clafouti, nestled in a toasty pastry shell and surrounded by Campari orange sauce, is a lovely rendition of the French country dessert ($6). The playfully elegant raspberry-and-passion-fruit bombe ($5.50), an ice-cream-mold dome of raspberry gelato around passion-fruit sorbetto served with a few fresh raspberries and a champagne sabayon, is a glamorous little igloo, half child's toy, half grown-up treat.

La Belle Vie opened in late March, and despite McKee and Thoma's best efforts to keep its arrival quiet--no advertising, no press-release barrage--the restaurant has been packed nearly every night. This may not be entirely good news: Compared to my first visit, dishes have been less reliably sublime lately, and one Friday night I had to wait until 9:15 for the table I had reserved for 8:30. Maybe I was just crabby, but those lovely turnip ravioli arrived more leaden than they had been--still excellent, but no longer ethereal. I suspect they had been waiting for my fried oysters ($10), which were perfect, five hot little drops of the ocean served with a potent mash of charred tomatoes wrapped in a veil of grilled eggplant. The bouillabaisse ($19) that night also suffered from bad timing; the subtle saffron-and-tomato broth had cooled and the grilled bread had gotten soggy. But I'll admit that it was hard to hold a grudge against the dish once I snapped open a bright red crawfish perched neatly on the pile of seafood and dipped his sweet tail in the garlicky rouille that livened up the dish.

Throughout this same visit my waiter was distractingly oafish. Asked to recommend a wine, he unconvincingly picked up the list and started naming the priciest bottles. He never managed to remember who ordered what, and when he brought dessert he simultaneously dropped the check and left a replacement candle next to the one still burning on our table, reinforcing the not-so-subtle message: Get Out. But it's impossible to believe that the occasional dud server won't be weeded out once the restaurant hits its stride. I know I'll be back; I've already made reservations for my next birthday. How will you know me? I'll be the one in the corner having trouble responding to aural cues.

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