Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

It’s one of our expectations that not only should French restaurants re-create an experience for us, but the experience should be transportive. Think of the bistro whose yellowed walls serve as a kind of shorthand for the Gauloise-stained haunts that aging yuppies frequented in their backpacking youth, or of the countrified inn whose ambience alone, redolent of the good bourgeois life, is for some worth the exorbitant price of dinner.

Le Paradou, Yannick Cam’s latest venture, is visually dominated by a couple of gigantic vases of dried orchids, and a mood of quiet gentility prevails over the dining room. At least initially, I was led to conclude that the South of France was being conjured, if not exactly replicated. But ultimately, it wasn’t to a specific place at all but, rather, to a specific time that I found myself transported.

Having spent the past couple of years in the relative obscurity of Great Falls, Va., biding his time and wowing the locals with his Asian-accented French cooking, Cam has returned downtown, setting up shop on the edge of the Penn Quarter. If you’re counting, this marks his third incarnation in six years, and his seventh since arriving in D.C. in the late ’70s. But even as Le Paradou represents the return of the peripatetic Cam to the city, it also represents the return of a dining aesthetic that a lot of us presumed extinct. This is a restaurant that behaves—blithely, stubbornly, triumphantly—as if the past quarter-century had never happened.

The late ’70s were indisputably the golden age for French food in this city. Quite simply, going out for any kind of high-end meal meant going out for French. The classically rooted, wildly inventive Jean-Louis Palladin dominated the landscape, turning out his own personal version of nouvelle cuisine at the Watergate, in the process turning himself into that used-to-be-rarity: the celebrity chef. Elsewhere, tradition reigned: classical sturdiness on the plate, and stiff, elaborate, occasionally abusive service in the dining room.

A lot has changed since then. Fine dining has become sport. Eating out, particularly on the upper end of the price scale, is frequently a playful, freewheeling affair—witness the Minibar, Citronelle, even Maestro. Le Paradou, by contrast, seems almost reactionary in its staunchness and sobriety. Men are required to wear a jacket; whether it is also recommended that they possess a full head of silver hair, I can’t say, although you would be hard-put to find one in the dining room who didn’t fit that description. Waiters in starched, dark suits and ties stand at the ready at their stations, arms crossed, surveying the area like Secret Service agents. The entire staff, scrupulously trained, is solicitous verging on obsequious, if largely tone-deaf to the sometimes off-putting formality with which it conducts its rounds. My wife, wondering aloud about an ingredient in one of the dishes, was once descended upon by an eavesdropping server: “Madame? Question?”

As if to underscore the grand tradition he is the product of, Cam even has in his possession the remaining, much-coveted bottles of wine from the cellar of the old Jean-Louis at the Watergate. This special stash is a thing to behold. Though only to behold—unless you’ve recently come into an inheritance. And the $58, two-course prix fixe dinner nets an appetizer and an appetizer-size entree—which is an expression of either enormous self-confidence or towering self-regard.

Cam does not lack for artistry. No one in town pays more attention to color, and no one has as distinct a palette, his plates on recent visits shimmering with the hues of fall: warm yellows, light ochres, subdued oranges, and the well-placed stroke of brilliant green. That color scheme is echoed by the soft, amber shades of the dining room itself, so that Cam achieves an impressive unity of effect, creating a kind of museumlike connection between the food and its environment.

And his cooking, at its best, offers the oft-forgotten pleasures of subtle refinement. In an era of big and bold, Cam opts for the quiet revelation, lacing his dishes with tiny explosions of flavor. He bands his roasted sea scallops in thin strips of Parma ham and applies impastoed swabs of parsley sauce around it on the plate. The ham intensifies the mild, juicy scallop; the sauce, a verdant, almost iridescent green with a startling vegetal power, ushers the whole thing into spring. Roasted pigeon is paired with a couple of nubs of seared foie gras—a natural match, given the essential mineral character of the bird—but after the velvety lushness fades, it’s the notes of cumin and the port-soaked dates that assert themselves, much the way a glass of red wine clears away the richness that clings to the palate with a wash of acidity and spice.

But with the decidedly nonretro prices Cam insists on charging, he’s inevitably inviting comparisons with the likes of Citronelle, Maestro, and Laboratorio del Galileo, and the fact remains that Le Paradou is too frequently underwhelming to be regarded in their company. On my first visit, at lunchtime, I roamed freely about the menu with a companion, seeking to try as many dishes as our time, money, and stomachs would allow. Plate after plate arrived: a lobster purse with carrot jus and ginger, a polenta cake with garlicky escargot and morels, a sea-urchin gratin. All good, some very good, but none that qualified as memorable. I found myself waiting, nearly in vain, for something that would wow me. It came, finally, with a special, a tomato risotto: a dish of remarkable clarity and purity, with a sweetness that outstripped what you’d typically find in fresh-from-the-market tomatoes.

The entrees that followed were equally frustrating. A spiced crispy duck breast was overcooked, but the fat link of boudin that came with it, though not as light as some, was terrific, a solid, savory custard. Swordfish, likewise, was dull, a clumsy, space-taking object on the plate that nearly obscured the satisfactions to be had from its accompanying potato cocotte.

At dessert, Cam gives way to pastry chef Romain Renard, and a funny thing happens: That hidebound seriousness, that sense of attending a solemn and important performance, gives way, too. There’s an unexpected sense of play, of lightness, that even the wait staff seems to pick up on. Renard has a facility for turning what could be dense and burdensomely rich into something airy and very nearly insubstantial. His baba au rhum is intricate and whimsical and if not for the lingering, liqueur-like intensity of his coconut sorbet would disappear without leaving its mark. Listen to the way his fig tart, a wisp of a thing, crackles like a fried wonton at the merest press of a fork. A chestnut gourmandise with chocolate sauce is a wonder of engineering, delivering the depth of flavor of chocolate but without the load.

Whimsy and risk-taking aren’t everything, of course, and a strong case can be made for the sanctity of tradition in the kitchen. But as Palladin himself proved—and as a new generation of chefs following in his wake has reinforced—it’s possible to be both serious and fun, to be a classicist who might be beholden to tradition but who is not also burdened by it. I know it’s probably too much to ask of Cam, a traditionalist, a purist, and, not least of all, a chef intent on maintaining his reputation, that he enjoy himself a little, but I also know that if he’s not going to, then the rest of us aren’t going to, either.

Le Paradou, I678 Indiana Ave. NW, (202) 347-6780. —Todd Kliman

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washcp.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.