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by Ponzy Lu

La Terrasse, the restaurant that pioneered upscale dining on the Penn campus in the late 1960s, has returned. After a nine-year hiatus, the restaurant has been revived at the same location on Sansom Street by Bill Hoffman, C'81, an alumnus of both Penn and the original La Terrasse. For most students, it was a special-occasion restaurant; for the law school, a nearby watering hole. For the faculty, the original La Terrasse was a place to feed, and possibly impress, visiting seminar speakers and potential Penn faculty without causing too much fuss at the departmental business office when filing for a reimbursement. Asked by this publication to review La Terrasse, I recalled that my first visit was during my interview trip to Penn in December of 1971.

The logo for the new La Terrasse says it was established in 1966. Back then, the terrace was of irregular red brick with big trees that grew through the roof and radiant heaters, both gas and electric, that kept diners warm throughout the winter. The new La Terrace is slick, with a smooth brick floor on the terrace and white cloths on the tables. The graphics in their advertising and menu are antiqued black-and-white photographs of the new chefs and an old French sidewalk scene. There is also a Parisian chef who shuttles in regularly to maintain a direct connection to the source of gastronomy.

The lunch menu offers both traditional items and more trendy choices. For the traditionally minded, there is cassoulet with confit of duck and salade Nicoise. I do not recall ever eating cassoulet from a table with a white tablecloth; usually it was part of a plat du jour served on newsprint or possibly a red checked table cover. Seared fusion-cuisine tuna in a salad from the Cote d'Azur seems a novel idea for a French restaurant, but Tex-Mex is also now hot in Paris.

For our appetizers we went for the classics: escargots and foie gras. The foie gras was perfectly sauteed, but its bed of crunchy lentils -- a contrast of textures in principle -- did not work. And the layer of greens, a visual contrast to keep the plate from being too brown, was wetted with a too-acidic vinaigrette. The snails, fricasseed with wild mushrooms, were the light composition that is trendy these days. It reminded me of the vegetable soup of our landlady in Marseilles and would earn a healthy choice by our health care system. Traditionalists, however, will miss the ritual dunking of bread in melted garlic butter.

The main courses were grilled duck breast and venison fillet. These were the highlights of the evening, both with brown sauces that were close to perfect. The duck (cut across the muscle fibers rather than along the fiber as is usually done in France) was served with a poivarde, and the venison in chevreuil. To complete the basic food groups, mashed potatoes accompanied the duck, and couscous was used as a footing to display the fanned array of thin venison slices. The potatoes were ordinary, not the kind with copious butter and heavy cream found in French cookbooks. The couscous was actually quaint -- and reminded us of the role of North Africa in today's French diversity.

Desserts, a Marjolaine with warm cherry sauce and a chocolate gateau, were visually exciting, but they tasted more like Milky Ways than patisserie. This was the weakest course. The wines by the glass were adequate. The house Portuguese wines, which the original La Terrasse introduced to Philadelphia, are still there. My fondest memory was the 1970 Chateau Haut Brion at a price we slipped by the Chemistry business office without a stir -- less than $100 a bottle in the late 1980s.

The service was flawless, the dining experience certainly the best in West Philadelphia. La Terrasse today is the equal of most of the best of Center City. Only three or four places can be counted on to be consistently better. We spent $135 for two including wine and tip, and it should be quite easy to leave contented for under $100 for two. To put this in perspective: our dinner took about 100 minutes, or the same as two class periods. At the current rate, two class periods for two at Penn cost $240. Dinner at La Terrasse is a good buy.

La Terrasse
3432 Sansom Street
(215) 386-5000

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