I SUSPECT MOST restaurant reviewers start their careers feeling a little like secret agents: playing a role; operating undercover; gathering intelligence for their masters, ostensibly for the public good. They rarely think of the downside of their fantasy: being unmasked; humiliated; at best, sent out hungry into the darkness; at worst—what?—forced to wash dishes? Campagne
86 Pine (off First in the Inn at the Market), 728-2800 (reservations recommended) dinner 5:30-10; after-theater menu until midnight; full bar open until 2am all major credit cards; no personal checks Enough of fantasy. For more than 10 years, I have lived the shadow existence of the unmasked spy, at least every time I ate at Campagne. In December 1989, equipped with an elaborate false identity (that of a middle-aged, Viennese-born trafficker in objets d'art), I was appointed by the then-publisher of this paper to the post of junior restaurant critic, my first assignment to visit Peter Lewis' five-year-old restaurant, Campagne, recently moved from Capitol Hill to the Inn at the Market. The record of my experience (published under my cover name, Walter Hiltner) generated, at least in professional foodie circles, the impact of a preemptive nuclear first strike. Restaurateurs in the dozens (it seemed like hundreds at the time) called the paper to protest the savaging of one of their kind. Like any spymaster with an operation visibly unraveling, the publisher proceeded to cut his losses. I, my cover blown, was put out to pasture, my first professional review also my last. Not only that: I was given to know that should I ever visit Campagne, even in a private capacity, I would be shown its door: I was cut off, eighty-sixed, persona non grata. It is surprising how annoying it is, in a city bursting with restaurants, to be forbidden to visit just one—one, moreover, you didn't much like in the first place. I confess, it rankled. So now that I have been restored to the food beat, it was natural enough to want my rehabilitation officially certified, and how to do that more clearly than to return to the scene of my humiliation? There's an additional reason for a visit to Campagne just now. Ten years ago it was a pioneer in the revival of upscale downtown dining; today, when a new venue opens seemingly weekly in a formerly shabby storefront on First or Second, Campagne is an old-timer, taken for granted by patrons, seen as one to beat by the new kids down the block. Campagne is 15—a dangerous age for a restaurant. My first 15 minutes in the place the other night, a chilly winter evening, were heavily colored by d骠 vu. The main dining area had been dark in '89, almost too dark to read the menu. It was still dark, so dark I was tempted to hold both the menu and the single flickering votive candle on our table close to my nose to make out the words. Once the menu was deciphered, there was again that twinge of recollection: once more the ingredients for every dish went on and on, dotted with fragments of often dubious French, first piquing and then prospectively sating the appetite (current record holder for length: "Napoleon of white chard, pine nuts, oyster mushrooms and black currant layered on puff pastry with goat crottin and cr譥 frae, served on a sorrel and spinach vin blanc"). Fortunately, one does not eat the menu, and on the plate things have changed very much for the better. At least until the mid-'90s, Campagne dishes could be as laborious and heavy as their descriptions. Under current chef Daisley Gordon (in office a little over a year), imagination triumphs over excess. The hors d'oeuvres serving of the restaurant's signature p de Campagne ($8) is a succulent slab, mild and piquant at once, and we devoured every bite. By contrast there was barely enough of the succulent assemblage of saut饤 mushrooms, onion, and leeks "on a Parmesan fondant" ($15) to satisfy one greedy diner, and my companion consumed hers so quickly that I must take on faith her report that chips of fried celery root atop the confection made a definite contribution. That we got to sample the dish at all was due to a fortunate error on our server's part. My date's original order, the mussel tart in saffron cream with tomato confit ($15), served gratis in compensation, was nowhere near so tasty, its pastry shell chewy, its mussels likewise. And "confit" can be a lot of things, but half a skinless stewed tomato is not one of them. From that point onward, the evening soared. The only criticism of our main dishes was that the room was too dark to appreciate their color and presentation. The roasted squab and trimmings (including succulent slivers of Jerusalem artichoke, $24) were fragrant, moist, and chewy, not overwhelmed by their rich, dark port-wine sauce. Even better to my taste was a platter matching a pair of ultra-rare lamb chops and a coarse house-made lamb sausage with a kind of garlicky home-fries patty in an anise- scented reduction: weird-sounding but winning in execution. Reports from other recent diners at Campagne suggest that our experience is not unusual. Though the menu tends to be overwritten, dishes themselves are marked by extreme tact and exquisite balance between ingredients. The paradox continues into the dessert menu, overseen by pastry chef Lauren Feldman. You can't escape crꭥ brul饠these days, but there's nothing routine about Feldman's, scented with cardamom and accessorized with caramelized banana chips and flavors of orange and espresso ($9). I longed to try the "blood orange soup with pink grapefruit Champagne sorbet and tarragon crisps" (also $9) but was lured instead by the "chocolate and nougat parfait glac頷ith honey bitter chocolate sauce and candied pistachio" ($9). The name says it all: I ended my meal replete but happy, shamelessly sucking the last gobbets of chocolate sauce from the ends of my moustache. I hope this report on dinner at Campagne does not produce the response my last did a decade ago. I look forward to returning soon on my own nickel (well, my own $150 to $200—the place isn't cheap), sampling more items on the extensive and reasonably priced list of wines by the glass, trying other dishes (the salad duck confit with Savoy cabbage [$11] sounds like good winter fare, as do the pork cheek-stuffed ravioli with orange and olives [$28]). I hope blood oranges are still in season when, and if, I do return.