There is a certain jaunty confidence that one senses upon entering L'Hermitage, a French restaurant open barely three months in Lamplighter Square on Foothill Drive. The location, formerly the home of the long-gone Dejeuner, more noteworthy for helping launch the career of Julie Pullman Wilson, (who now oversees the impressive Mariposa in Deer Valley) than its survivability, is a bit off the beaten path.
In addition to one illuminated sign, there are several hand-lettered posters announcing hours on the entry stairs which lead to the small though well-appointed dining area. The paneled walls and classic paintings seem a bit incongruous when compared to the French jazz/fusion rock being attended to on the tape player by the lone waiter. Besides acting as the disc jockey for the evening, he handled the chores of host, hanging coats, serving the wine, and waiting on tables. He was unphased as he seated us, confidently snapping our napkins into our laps.L'Hermitage's menu is also an interesting contrast, at least when compared to trends favoring lighter and more inventive cuisine. Here the fare is country French - nary a hint of cuisine minceur. One of the appetizers is steak tartar ($12), the rich, raw meat dish prepared tableside that was even dropped from the Fleur De Lys' traditional menu a couple of years ago.
Entrees also fall into line with these traditional tastes. They include frogs legs ($14), coq au vin ($12.50), duckling with orange sauce ($13.50), boeuf bourguignon ($12.50), rack of lamb and beef Wellington (both $15.50). Prices include a soup du jour, dinner salad and warm crusty loaves of Pierre's French bread.
We sampled two of the hors d'oeuvres, the escargots de bourgogne ($4.95) and the pate maison ($4.50). Both were delicious and true to the essence of French country cooking. The slice of pate, garnished with lettuce and gherkins, was rich, velvety smooth and redolent with herbs. It was topped with a thin, translucent demi glace. The succulent escargots were served in pools of bubbling garlic butter.
Other appetizers include coquille St. Jacques ($4.95), artichoke vinaigrette ($3.50), and saumon fume ($5.50). Our dinner was also preceded by the soup of the day, cream of cauliflower. It was subtle, to a fault I thought, though my companion enjoyed its creaminess. The salad, large crispy leaves of bib lettuce, was more successful. Not only were the ingredients fresh and the portions ample, but the vinaigrette dressing a perfect balance of flavors.
There was a bit of uneveness with the two entrees we tried. The saumon en croute Nantua ($15.50), a moist piece of salmon in a flaky pastry crust served with lobster sauce had the slightest sour taste. It seemed to emanate from the layer of provencale herbs between the fish and crust. The sauce was delectable - a subtle blend of crayfish puree, butter, tomato and hint of hot pepper.
The sauce was also impeccable with the veau L'Hermitage ($15), scallops of veal sauteed in a mushroom cream sauce. One of the pieces of veal was a bit thicker and chewier than the other two, though the sauce made the dish an overall success. Each of the entrees was accompanied by a large serving of mildly seasoned rice and crispy sauteed pea pods.
Five desserts are offered, each reasonably priced at $2 each. The Grand Marnier souffle, for two, costs $9. Again, they are basic French specialities - creme caramel, mousse au chocolat, orange glacee au Grand Marnier, and creme brulee. We shared the latter, a sumptuous serving of warm custard covered with a perfectly thin crunch of carmelized sugar.
There is a warm, celebratory feeling about both the food and service at L'Hermitage, in spite of some shortcomings. From the French accents overheard in the kitchen to the accents on the essential ingredients and preparations, this small restaurant has a lot to offer.
L'Hermitage, 1615 Foothill Drive, 583-5339. Open for dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Patio dining available later this spring. Lunch served for parties of 20 or more. Major credit cards and checks with guarantee cards accepted. Reservations recommended.