My world-weary friend and I sit at a window table eyeing our frenetically perky server as she whirls around the drab dining room of Le Giverny with an energy level akin to the Tasmanian Devil. She's almost giggly as she takes our order. She bops her blond head and sings to herself in a clear, honeyed voice as she darts in and out of the kitchen. I half expect her to grab her cohort (an equally enthusiastic brunette whom I spied grooving to Muzak on my first visit) and bust out in cheerleading chants on behalf of the swordfish special that evening.
"I have no clue," I respond to my friend. "I want to find her annoying, but to tell the truth, she's kind of refreshing. Too bad the cooks don't have that much exuberance."
Le Giverny was, for years, situated in a slim strip mall on Clairmont. It served the kind of consistent, down-to-earth French fare that makes loyalists out of locals. When their lease expired at the end of last year, they decided to uproot and take residence in the Emory Inn on Clifton Road, all but guaranteeing business from the university and CDC folk ensconced in the area.
Problem is, the digs just aren't that spiffy. A small white sign stuck in the ground is the only hint of its location. You walk through a notably beige lobby and pass a bowl of fake lemons on the way to the restaurant. The main dining room looks like a glorified mess hall, complete with an eyesore of a built-in buffet and college-grade Monet prints mounted on the walls. (You may remember from art history class that Giverny was Monet's pad in the Seine Valley of France.) For optimum aesthetics, either vie for a window seat overlooking the courtyard or request a table in the library, a cozy little space with bookshelves and far more stimulating art prints.
The food here is most successful when it stays close to its Gallic heritage. Unfortunately, it often moseys into nebulous New American trendiness with five too many ingredients on the plate. The crab cake ($7.95), for instance, is sweet, gently seasoned and studded with bits of corn, but it roosts upon a profusion of green cabbage slaw and is buried under a calamity of mayonnaise and other garnishing sauces of various hues. After we excavate and polish off the crab cake, the plate looks like a Big Mac exploded on it.
I'd much rather have a bowl of their sweet, zaftig mussels ($7.95) steeped in the creamy white wine broth that the French do so well. (I think our frolicsome server likes these as well -- she beamed particularly approvingly at us after dropping them off.) It's a huge portion, enough to split easily. Same with the platter full of robust, nefariously rich pate served with two types of mustard, pickled vegetables and a thatch of salad ($6.95).
Their salads often seem out of balance. I love the composition of the frisee aux lardons ($6.50) -- crinkly lettuce, bacon cracklings and croutons tossed together with a warm poached egg on top -- but holy moley is the vinaigrette acidic! My tongue had second-degree burns by the time I was done. Watercress and beet salad, on the other hand, has no get-up-and-go ($5.95). Delicious though the blobs of accompanying Vermont goat cheese may be, the slivered beets taste canned and the verjus vinaigrette has no spark.
Dinner entrees are geared to please a broad range of tastes and the offerings read like a primer of restaurant cooking over the last 20 years. For the poultry crowd, there's Mediterranean chicken breast ($15.95) with marinated artichoke and sweet pepper salad. It tastes like something you'd fix for yourself on a weeknight if you were feeling ambitious. For something with a little more character, the steak frites does the trick ($22.95). A nicely charred, buttery filet is adorned with a classy parsley-shallot butter and a crunchy heap of fries. The cloying aioli that mucked up the crab cake gets a second life as an astute dipping sauce for the fries.
Dinner is typically quiet, mostly older couples or visitors not wanting to stray too far from the hotel. At lunch, though, the place is hopping with suits from the nearby offices. Lunch is also when the kitchen settles down and serves the fundamental, soulful French food I remember from its days on Clairmont. In the Salade Nicoise ($12.95), I discover the salad I was jonesing for at dinner but never found: seared rare tuna, fingerling potatoes and green beans unite in a satisfying medley, bound by a (hooray!) well-proportioned dressing. They also make a mean croque monsieur ($8.75 with salad), the creamy ham sandwich ubiquitous in the cafes of Paris. Their version reminds me of the creamed chipped beef my mother used to make for me.
The beatific smile never vanishes from our sprightly server's face. When we finish our meal, she processes our check in a flash and thanks us profusely for coming in. Maybe she's a raving bitch when she's off the floor. Or just maybe she's reached some sort of restaurant enlightenment. No matter -- the next time I need an infusion of sunshine in this interminably rainy summer, I know where to go.
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