A NEW AMERICAN IN PARIS

When you walk into the restaurant at 63 avenue Franklin-Roosevelt and see the clean, spare gray-and-off-white decor, the hip contemporary art on the walls, the potted banana trees, the open kitchen with its charcoal grill and wood-burning oven and the waiters in their pink shirts, tan trousers and green neckties, you half expect--despite the Parisian locale--to find patrons eating Caesar salad, cheeseburgers and California-style pizzas, washed down with, say, Iron Horse Chardonnay or Duckhorn Merlot.

And guess what.

Marshal's is the French capital's newest American restaurant, and it's not much like any of the others. To begin with, it really looks and feels like an authentic '80s-vintage California eating place--and its owners and key kitchen personnel are authentic Californians. The proprietor and namesake of the restaurant is Marshal Backlar, a former director of dramatic development for ABC Entertainment in Hollywood and sometime independent film producer. In 1983, the Francophile Backlar took his family to the Loire Valley, near the wine town of Chinon, for a kind of sabbatical. They moved to Paris 18 months later and haven't left France since. Backlar got the idea for his restaurant while still in the Loire, took possession of the premises last May, ran the restaurant that was on the spot (Les Trois Moutons) for three months (which is the extent of his previous restaurant experience), closed it down, completely refashioned the interior (his wife Whitney designed the place) and reopened on April Fool's Day this year.

As chef, Backlar hired Ron Smoire, former sous-chef at our own 72 Market Street and La Toque. His sous-chef is Ted Hiscox, from the Santa Fe Bar & Grill in Berkeley, and pastry chef is Elaine Mannix, another veteran of Santa Fe and of Stars in San Francisco. Other American imports here, besides the selection of 15 or 20 top California wines (priced, in some cases, even cheaper than they usually are in their home state), include frozen soft-shell crabs, pecans and maple syrup. Beef, though, comes from what Backlar will identify only as "a very special region in Germany" (cut to U.S. specifications and aged in the restaurant for 2 1/2 weeks), and the place of mesquite in the kitchen is taken by apple wood and oak for the oven and vine cuttings and charcoal for the grill.

"My vision of this place has come true," Backlar enthuses. "The French are turned on. They've never seen anything like this before."

Indeed, he adds, about 90% of his clientele is French. And what are their favorite dishes? Soft-shell crabs, Caesar salad, burgers, New York steak, pecan pie and cheesecake, says Backlar--"And they love the margaritas and the daiquiris."

Americans, of course, have seen something like this before, plenty of times, and are likely to be a good deal more critical of the place than the average Frenchman. Immediate quibbles might concern the shaky service and the curious ventilation system, which floods the dining room with the smells of garlic and charred fish when the air conditioner kicks on. And the menu is too small and too safe, and doesn't seem to have found its personality: This is neither an old-fashioned American-style grillroom, contemporary California restaurant, home-style dinner house nor a burgers-and-salad place, but rather a bit of each--and not enough of any.

But, based on an early visit to Marshal's, I must report that the food here shows definite promise and does at least an intermittently commendable job of representing current American eating habits to the French.

I didn't think much of a couple of fresh fish specials I sampled, and a smoked duck tagliatelle was deformed by too much garlic and too much lemon juice. But a dish described as pan-fried oysters turned out to be a very successful adaptation of a dish served locally at Chinois on Main, with the oysters returned to their shells in a bath of curry-flavored yogurt sauce; Caesar salad was correctly made; the New York steak was a wonderful piece of meat, tender and flavorful and perfectly cooked, and the accompanying baked potato was just right. The cheeseburger was thick and good, but it was served with limp fried zucchini sticks instead of French fries. "We can't get the right potatoes to make French fries right now," chef Smoire explained--a rather astonishing claim, I thought, in this noted year-round world capital of French fries. But after all, as our Dutch waiter explained to us, "Fried zucchini is very Californian."

Marshal's, 63 avenue Franklin-Roosevelt, Paris 8. Reservations: (45) 63.21.56. Dinner for two , food only, $40 to $70.

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