PARIS - I have followed the career of David Van Laer since the 1980s, when he first surfaced as an eager and impressive young chef at Jean-Pierre Vigato's La Manufacture just outside of Paris.
Three years ago he went off on his own to open Le Bamboche, a pint-sized restaurant that instantly took off, as diners applauded his combination of modern and classical French fare in a cozy Left Bank setting right behind the Bon Marche department store.
A few weeks ago he moved to larger quarters on the Boulevard du Montparnasse, and if a single meal is any sign, Van Laer should continue along his successful path. Considering the time and energy constraints of getting Le axence opened, the new menu differs little from Le Bamboche.
Throughout his career, Van Laer has kept true to his own tastes and origins, all the while weaving into the menu dishes from his native northern France. So chez Van Laer you find updated versions of such classics as the traditional presskoph head cheese (here laced with lobster rather than pork) and waterzooi, a sort of chicken pot-au-feu (here prepared with scallops, or coquilles Saint-Jacques).
Best dishes at a recent dinner included a rustic gratin dish with a rich parmentier de queue de boeuf, or mashed potatoes layered with bits of slowly cooked oxtail that had been shredded, all served with a gentle truffle puree.
He has a fine way with pigeon, and samples of two versions - one on the a la carte menu was served in a pastry-cased tourte and another on the bargain 190-franc menu was simply roasted - prove that this little bird deserves greater exposure. Both preparations showed up the bird's earthy richness and wintry appeal. The tourte was the sort of dish you expect to find on a fine bourgeois table, not a sunny yellow restaurant on Boulevard du Montparnasse: The pigeon has that properly livery, gamy flavor, enhanced by a sauce becasse and a few sips of J.L. Colombo's racy 1997 Syrah La Serine Pointue, a bargain at 150 francs.
Another good bet was the first course platter of ravioles (tiny raviolis) stuffed with shellfish and a fragrant truffle cream, and the lobster presskoph, a humorous and delicious headcheese bathed in an herb-rich vinaigrette. I was less enthused about the frogs' legs fricassee unsuccessfully paired with lentils, garlic cream and snails; and the remoulade of langoustines, which I would not have ordered had I known that the langoustines were raw. (It's a sacrilege to serve them raw, for it is in gentle cooking that the langoustines are allowed to bring out their iodine-rich flavor and soft mellow texture.) As ever, Van Laer's cellar offers some bargains and discoveries, including A. Ostertag's spicy GewŸrztraminer (the 1996 Vignoble d'Epfig at 180 francs), the Perrin brothers' astonishing white Coudelet de Beaucastel (the 1996 at 200 francs); J.L. Colombo's viognier-florah white Rhone Les Figuieres (the 1997 at 170 francs), and Michel Richaud's ripe Cotes du Rhone Cairanne (the 1997 at 120 francs).
The new decor is full of lots of bright sunny golds and terra-cotta, just a hint of the Mediterranean. Go see for yourself. With a bargain 190-franc menu at lunch and dinner, and valet parking to boot, how can you miss? - VEGETARIANS have never been treated very well in this city. Oh, sure, chefs will prepare vegetable-based dishes if you ask, but most of us really don't want to be a bother or stand out from the crowd. Leave it to Mark Williamson to find a way: Each day at his continually evolving restaurant, Maceo, Williamson offers a full-fledged vegetarian menu, with a selection of four first and main course vegetarian dishes. Each dish revolves around what's in the market and in season, so right now the menu is peppered with chestnuts and fennel, beets and dried peas, onions and apples. The newly refurbished main dining room at Maceo has been open since
September, with sparkling wooden floors, gorgeous stained wood panels in rich oak framing the restaurant's original beveled glass mirrors, and clever, modern lighting.
Gone are the old banquettes, dreary and heavy draperies and oppressive, outdated lighting that once were part of the old Le Mercure Galant. Best dishes sampled at a recent lunch include Williamson's fines lamelles de chevre croustillantes aux dattes et noix: a soul-warming phyllo-encased tourte filled with leeks, goat cheese, dates and pine nuts, served with a refreshing little salad of julienned carrots and celery root. Equally appealing was the cannelloni croustillant sur caviar d'aubergines, with phyllo canneloni wrapped around a delicious mushroom stuffing, served with a too-salty eggplant caviar and a topknot of salad. The risotto - a wildly inventive dish that included a parsley puree, mushrooms, snow peas, fava beans and another signature topknot salad - was less convincing. There was plenty of it, but the dish lacked focus, salt and that essential creamy richness of an authentic risotto. Wines, of course, are the main reason to come here. Two wonders include a fresh and refreshing Swiss white, Alain Neyroud's pinot blanc (the 1996 is priced at 240 francs) and a racy young Coteaux du Languedoc from Domaine d'Aupilhac (the 1996 is priced at 130 francs.)
Le Maxence, 9 bis Boulevard du Montparnasse, Paris 6; tel: 01-45-67-24-88; fax 01-45-67-10-22. Closed Saturday lunch and all day Sunday. Credit cards: American Express, Visa. Menus at 190 and 320 francs. A la carte, 325 to 375 francs, including service but not wine. Maceo, 15, rue des Petits-Champs, Paris 1: tel: 01-42-97-53-85; fax: 01-47-03-36-93. Closed Sunday. Credit cards: American Express, Diners, Visa. Vegetarian lunch menu at 180 francs, 220 francs at dinner. Traditional menu 195 francs at lunch, 220 francs at dinner. Prices include service but not wine.