Experienced restaurateurs know that a restaurant is theater. Le Penguin, the Greenwich bistro with a twist, sets us in Provence, with glowing orange textured wallpaper and contrasting shiny blue paint. The site of the former restaurant Jean-Louis, a fine-dining destination since 1985, has been transformed by designer Lynn Morgan of Rowayton.
The packed-together tables are topped in brown paper over crisp white tablecloths. The paper is stamped with the restaurant's mascot, the Penguin. The fanciful, monicled mascot, wearing a red bow tie and bearing a martini, is also rendered in a large painting on the wall. Le Penguin references both the French slang for waiter and chef-co-owner Antoine Blech's daughter's nickname for her father.
Blech has cooked at Spago and L'Orangie in Los Angeles. He and Le Penguin's co-owner Anshu Vidyarthi worked at restauranteur Rick Walhstedt's Le Colonial in New York City. (Walhstedt is a partner in L'Escale in Greenwich and Artisan in Southport.)
Blue-striped cotton dishtowels, the napkin of the season, are soft and casual, and the close seating creates a lively scene on weekend evenings. But at a recent a weekday lunch, with a few occupied tables spread through the room, it was quiet enough for us to notice a mother and son order in French. The American waitress replied in French.
Mussels arrived in a simple glass bowl, topped with a standard stainless steel bowl. When the waiter lifted the top bowl, the scent of sea, wine and herbs filled the air. Big sprigs of thyme were strewn across the black mussel shells. We lifted plump mussels from saffron broth redolent of tarragon and thyme, and discovered slices of saffron-hued garlic. The slightest hint of cream carried the flavors. An appetizer portion ($14) was a generous serving for two. Toasted bread, stacked vertically in a small tin box, called for dunking. Wanting more of that luscious broth, I used a big spoon.
The house-made country pâté suffered from dryness but was served with a sweet, dark, caramelized- onion jam, cornichons, whole-grain mustard and a small green salad dressed in lively mustard vinaigrette.
Pommes purée is a side order, and you just have to read the words to know it's going to be one of those wonderful creamy, rich potato dishes. It guided my choice of entrée: a hunk of golden roasted cod, which came with the pommes purée and classic julienned vegetables (Frances best answer to what to do with zucchini). The "with a twist" accent was a transparent tomato-truffle oil sauce ringing the edge of the plate.
Crispy Snapper was served with sauce vierge, herb-filled, lemony, with finely minced tomatoes. Spooned over warm quinoa, the effect was of a summery and light grain salad.
That Penguin? There are musical notes coming from his beak; like chef Blech, the penguin sings. (To hear Blech's sultry singing, go to http://www.frenchcrooner.com).
Le Penguin, 61 Lewis St., Greenwich, is open Monday through Sunday for lunch 12 to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Friday and Sunday, 5:30 to 10 p.m., and Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Information: 203-717-1200 and lepenguinbistro.com.