The cafe is just as gorgeous, sprawled behind a soaring, curved wall of glass. Exposed ductwork is painted deep blue, capping a gleaming stainless-steel exposition kitchen and wooden bistro tables topped with multicolor cloth napkins and centerpieces of dried flowers. The lighting is soft, the piped-in jazz music blissfully softer.
Vogue has made its mark on servers, too, elegantly clothed in long-sleeved white shirts, black pants, black bow ties and black aprons. It's easy to forget that these people are amateurs. At least until the fun starts. A flustered waiter takes our drink orders but never delivers them. He forgets to bring bread. He takes appetizer orders but has to be reminded we want entrees, too. We run out of silverware, and there's no pen to sign a credit-card slip.
Another evening, a waitress tests her balancing skills with a tray of drinks. It's like a slow-motion scene as she removes one glass, the tray tilts toward my head and a glass of iced tea makes a beeline for my noggin. She's quick, though, and corrects just in time.
Nit-pickers need not apply for this experience -- for my money, being part of the learning curve makes the meal all the more enjoyable.
And happily, L'Academie's cuisine is more reliable than the service. Students are carefully monitored by instructors, and one teacher wanders the room periodically to gauge satisfaction. Only the most minor of mistakes make it to the table.
Bread -- when it gets served -- is primo stuff, the hot, soft rolls studded with black pepper and slathered with herb butter. It's great sopping material for the terrific soups, usually French onion and minestrone.
Even good canned French onion can't be had for $2.25, so how SCI can send out this glorious broth in such a gargantuan bowl is a mystery. This could be one of the best versions around, thanks to rich beefy stock that hasn't been subdued by too much sweetness.
Minestrone is another marvel, the robust broth gorged with al dente elbow macaroni, carrot, potato, ham, white beans, zucchini and celery.
Spinach salad shows up frequently, and it's a stunner of exquisitely fresh baby leaves artfully arranged in a meticulous crisscrossed pile. Boiled egg yolk dusts the leaves like flower pollen, tossed with ribbons of bacon, a confetti of chopped red onion, pine nuts and an expertly restrained drizzle of slightly sweet garlic dressing.
I can't believe a mozzarella salad of this caliber could command a measly $3, but it does at this bistro. What looks to be at least a half ball of mozzarella has been thickly sliced, fanned with fresh tomato slices, mounded with mesclun and spritzed with a vibrant basil vinaigrette. The same cheese and vegetables make a quality panini and pizza, baked in a brick oven.
Diners are asked to vary their entrees (a limit of two duplicate orders per four-person table) to give the students experience with all parts of the menu. Speak up fast and claim the pan-seared halibut if it's offered. The mild, meaty fish arrives moist and cloaked in chopped pistachios alongside dollops of buttery barley risotto, chopped red pepper, skinny marinated grilled asparagus, and a splash of spicy orange sauce. Roast prime rib of beef is another fine option. Once the fat and gristle are cut away from the edge, the medium-rare meat is a pleasure, doused with a touch of red-wine demi. A side of apple dauphinoise potatoes delivers the thinly sliced vegetables tinged with cinnamon and paired with haricots vert (green beans).
It seems to pay to eat early at L'Academie. A later dinner (7:30, since the place closes at 8:30) finds food somewhat past its prime. Jumbo veal tortellini hint that they would have been wonderful when just prepared. As they are, the won-ton-shaped pasta pockets are dried out on the edges, saved by well-seasoned crumbled meat stuffing and a luscious mozzarella cream sauce that I scoop up by the spoonful.
Roasted leg of lamb doesn't age well either, with the three hefty chunks just this side of overcooked and glossed with a marsala jus that's too sweet for the dry meat. Lyonnaise potatoes aren't the traditional sliced-with-onion variety, but a grouping of roasted red potatoes, red bell pepper and potato-skin curls alongside grilled asparagus.