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Café de la Presse

The Renovated Café de la Presse

After an extensive freshening of the décor and menu, the literary Euro-nerd café hangout from 1992 has been resurrected with ambitious chops. The upscale coffee shop of the decked-out Triton Hotel, located at the heavily foot-trafficked Chinatown gates, is the perfect place for a windowed, see-and-be-seen coffee and wine bar worthy of watching the world waltz by. Tourist and local alike would be hard-pressed to find a more charming nook -- classique mahogany, potent, smooth café au laits, numerous bottles of fine local, French, and Spanish wine for an unheard of $25, and of course, their signature attribute: an entire rainy Sunday afternoon's worth of magazines and newspapers, both national and from Europe.

The Old World charm was a clear magnet for the café's new owners -- the equally-ambitious Aqua Development Corporation (the owners of Aqua, C&L Steakhouse, and Pisces) -- and $20 dinner entrée offerings. For un petite café, a simple sandwich, a bowl of rich, complex, bountiful soupe a l'oignon, a romantic shared bottle or an aperitif, the well-spaced room has a casual, continental flair, and it feels intimate, despite its accommodation of over 100 seats. But if you lift your eyes from Paris Match long enough to focus on the food, the diner will quickly realize that that Sutro Tower is no Tour Eiffel. And if, heaven forbid, you catch a glimpse of the distracting giant television monitors that are the only flaw of the redesign, that American pursuit of the overdone will indicate how heavily manipulated the cuisine has become. In all this Euro ambiance, the food is the loud-talking, binocular-toting gawker in Bermuda shorts.

In addition to the outstanding onion soup, we had ordered a small, crispy, tarte flambe of Muenster cheese to start, but instead we were served a wafer-thin, soggy-topped version with bacon, too much seething raw onion, and an debilitating glop of crème fraiche. The salade aux petits lardoons was a meal unto itself, with a generous serving of frisee, a poached egg, and several strips of bacon atop numerous handfuls of croutons sodden with a dressing that suffered from its own overabundance. A choking dose of vinegar and oil masked what would have been a subtle tang of Dijon mustard.

Like those croutons, we too were drowning, and the main courses did little to keep us afloat. The Boeuf Bourguignon, a recommendation of the waiter, had the rich nose and fragrance that one would expect of the dish, but its flavor was as one-dimensional as a salt lick. The texture of the beef was preserved, as was the delicate flesh of the monkfish in the saffron-hued Lotte a la Marsaillaise. But in the fish dish, the salt was again a white brick whose weight crushed the other flavors, making the whole salted olives nearly inedible. The fennel was entirely overcooked. The dried tomatoes were sweet and delicious.

The theme of "too much" was ubiquitous, transferring to the service as well as dessert. Servers were amazingly kind and attentive, but to the extreme; they stumbled over one another dozens of times to replace a sip of water -- the ordering of which we were asked about four times. I witnessed more than one table get the wrong food. And then, late in the evening when the place was half empty, I watched a Keystone Cops scene as a half-dozen servers met behind the bar, fumbling multiple arms full of multiple plates, debating loudly over whom ordered what.

And dessert? The seasonal fruit tart -- on our visit, yellow plums -- was exactly what it should be: plump with fresh produce, a light, barely sweet pastry cream, and a flaky, buttery crust basking in a tangy fruit sauce. The chocolate mousse, by contrast, was too runny, too sweet, and laden with too much orange essence. In short, simply too much.