THE DISH: Comme Il Faut
Comme Il Faut//9 Ulitsa Lva Tolstogo//Tel. 610 0230//Open weekdays 12 p.m. to 10 p.m.//Menu in Russian and English//Dinner for two with alcohol 3,260 rubles ($99)
Published: October 5, 2011 (Issue # 1677)
The covert positioning of expensive restaurants on the upper floors of hotels and malls is a peculiar phenomenon in St. Petersburg, a trend that Comme Il Faut unfortunately perpetuates. Although located on the second floor inside a shopping complex, there is actually no clear sign for the restaurant either outside or once you reach the restaurant itself, a confusion added to by an entrance which on first glance may or may not be a door. The staff don’t seem particularly perturbed by the labyrinthine journey, with one waitress asking in pleasant surprise (in English) “So how did you even find us?” And it is this willingness to exist in the background, to be and not to thrive, that characterizes Comme Il Faut, jarring though such a philosophy is for a restaurant presenting itself as inspired by France, a country that traditionally leads the cultural and culinary avant-garde.
Unsurprisingly, in light of this attitude, the restaurant was empty, and the waiter explained that most business comes from weddings and business functions, which explains the stage and speakers tacked on at the back of the room. It was somewhat perplexing that our party of two was seated at a table for eight, and inexcusable that although pre-booked, the staff only then set the table, though there were plenty of ready-set two-person places. Other than this oversight, the general feel of the restaurant did in fact do much to combat the awkwardness of dining in a large space in a small party. Sunlight filters in to the restaurant through amber and burgundy stained glass, imbuing the interior with a peaceful warmth and making the muted maroon and cream interior tasteful rather than prim, while bouncy though bland lounge jazz/acoustic pop fills the silence: Nice, but nothing new.
But, this being a French restaurant, the proof was always going to be in le pudding. On the face of it, the menu suggests that it is here that the real ambition lies, offering a combination of French, Russian and Asian cuisine.
The menu attempts to straddle the line between fusion and functional cuisine, but sitting on the fence means not tasting the fruit from either garden. The fish solyanka (390 rubles, $11.80) seemed to have been prepared solely with the aim of not offending the palette. Its timidity was especially detrimental given that the dish is renowned for its sour and spicy kick, which at Comme Il Faut was distinctly lacking. Though served quickly, it was lukewarm, and disappointingly for a soup made up of three different kinds of fish, its main substance was provided by vegetables.
The Thai salad with pork (440 rubles, $13.40) was much better, served on fresh, crunchy vegetables with a spicy-sweet sauce, though it could never be the kind of dish with which a restaurant distinguishes itself.
The overall impression of indifference was most completely encapsulated in the duck with sweet and sour sauce (750 rubles, $22.90), a cautious attempt at a synthesis of French-style roast duck and an Asian-style sauce. The meat was on the right side of chewy and was complemented well enough by the sauce, but there was nothing at all striking about it. Furthermore, in the menu, no side dish is listed as accompanying this meal — or indeed several others — yet there is no provision on the menu to add one. Though the waiter acquiesced to the “specialist” suggestion of a side of fries, they eventually came instead of the spinach-bed advertised in the menu, rather than in addition to it, even though they then appeared on the bill for an additional 150 rubles ($4.60).
The veal fillet with chanterelles (790 rubles, $24) was flavorsome if unimaginative, and the meat itself was slightly overcooked.
Such a lack of passion is not perhaps unique, but the prices here demand something extra, something that distinguishes the restaurant and justifies the cost. However, the failure to prepare even simple dishes well, to be not only unambitious but also uninterested, is Comme Il Faut’s real downfall. C’est la vie perhaps, but that’s no excuse.