When Cedric Coant shut down his Bearden restaurant earlier this year, one of the leading lights of West Knoxville's gastronomic scene was snuffed out in its prime. Yet a couple of weeks ago this much-mourned doyenne of Knoxvillian Francophiles rose again like a pan-seared Lazarus. Now this resurrected treasure, this happy truffle, can once more delight and inspire in its new upscale, downtown residence (416 W. Clinch Avenue).
The premises are small, simple, tasteful and slightly starched. Mindful of having fewer than 50 pink, plush seats, Le Parigo offers a menu that strikes exactly the right balance between pleasing diversity and reassuring focus, with a good handful of choices per course.
My initial impression was that an entire complement of waiting staff had been flown in from France. This effect was somewhat spoiled when my own waitress, in her Sorbonne vowels, suggested that if I needed her I should "just ask for the French one." Regardless of nationality, however, the service is uniformly exquisite, formal and deferential but with an impish wink. (Servers do, however, fall into the common trap of prematurely offering black pepper with a dish. As Kingsley Amis used to say, "How do I know? I haven't tasted it yet.")
The steak tartare is surprisingly mild, but such is the quality of the beef one can only feel grateful that its subtle tones have not been drowned out by an overtly spicy blare. This is raw meat at its most succulent: so smooth it's almost creamy, with a character that is at once both delicate and fortifying.
Escargots, piping hot and joyfully buttery, have a perfect consistency, the gentle give of the meat beautifully offset against the crunch of its salty dusting.
The filet of salmon is extraordinarily fresh. My server claimed the fish was happily swimming somewhere between Hawaii and New Zealand 24 hours ago, and sure enough it boasts the unmistakable aura of a VIP's glamorous, straight-from-the-airport last-minute appearance (although the mind boggles at the food miles it's notched up). Its accompanying sauce, made from leeks, cream, butter, shallots, and lobster stock is dizzyingly good.
Equally strong is the catch of the day, a large and tasty marlin steak of brave rareness. The rabbit is a little disappointing, the meat itself moist and tender but insufficiently interesting to survive without a more arresting accompaniment.
On the dessert front, Le Parigo's pistachio crème brulee is so good I almost wish I'd never had it. Heart-stoppingly, jaw-droppingly good, this little custard proves as life-changing and potent as heroin. Like Petrarch on first seeing Beatrice, I now divide my life into Before and After, and I look back upon my earlier years as a simpler, happier time, an Eden of innocence before I knew the agonizing joy a spoon could bring. (One might say that at almost $2 a mouthful, it should be something special.)
Lunchtimes, even with a stripped-back quiche-and-croque-monsieur-type menu, have not quite hit their stride yet, but they should stabilize after a week or so.
But now for the good news: On Friday and Saturday nights, though full dinner service stops at 10 p.m., the restaurant remains open until 2 a.m., offering $5 appetizers and half-price desserts. I warmly welcome this development as a major civic breakthrough, reclaiming as it does those romantic small hours from the smoke-and-repetitive-beats crowd and suggesting the delicious possibility of a late-night snug, a sliver of sophisticated, European café culture in the heart of the city.