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La Cigale: Low lights, high times

While La Cigale sits just off Delray Beach’s trendy East Atlantic Avenue, it’s a refreshingly traditional alternative to the urban-chic image projected by its upstart brethren. It’s comfortable, settled and well-broken-in, as is the lion’s share of its clientele.

This isn’t to say La Cigale is stuffy. It’s vibrant, but in its own way. The high volume in the main dining room doesn’t come from the forced atmospherics of a powerful sound system, but rather from animated conversation between old friends who are also regulars, judging from the way the owner table-hops around the room. It’s a good-sized restaurant with the feel of an intimate one, thanks to expert and well-informed staffers who handle each table as if it were the only one under their purview. If you wanted to capture the flavor of La Cigale in one feature, it’s this: Valet parking is mandatory, no exceptions. As for the fare, it’s of gourmet quality, as befits the price.

Starters: From the hot appetizer menu, we sampled the grilled artichoke ($16). It was cut vertically into quarters, and then sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and crushed pepper before grilling. It was clumsy and difficult to eat, with little payoff for the effort. In the end, we would have preferred a simple steamed artichoke with melted butter. Chicken liver pate ($14) consisted of several melon-ball-sized scoops served with croutons, Dijon mustard and tiny, powerful French cornichon pickles. If you like chicken liver, you’ll appreciate its explosive taste. A surprising standout was a simple mesclun salad ($9), lightly coated with a subtle champagne-vinaigrette dressing and characterized by an overall background scent of mild Bermuda onions.

Entrees: La Cigale offers an extensive selection of seafood options, and we tried one of the evening’s specials, hog snapper ($32), because our waiter rhapsodized that it was grass-fed. It was prepared in the old-style French way, which is to say the emphasis was on the treatment rather than the main item. It was topped with shrimp and an addictive buttery crustiness, and was almost too rich, but we wolfed it down happily even though the snapper underneath was largely forgotten. A generous portion of rainbow trout ($30), was equally delectable, but this time handled more judiciously with a simple basil olive oil, lemon, and sun-dried tomato topping. It came with a white-bean casserole that left the heavy lifting, in terms of flavor, to the fish. Seared sea scallops ($29) were plump and fleshy, and served with hearts of palm, sauteed spinach, and champagne beurre blanc — perfect for those who seek a lighter dish.

For a heavier meal, the grilled lamb chops ($36) were treated simply and with the respect they deserved. They sat in a puddle of port-wine demi-glace, of a sweetness that contrasted well with the herbal aromas of the meat. A generous accompaniment of ratatouille was of such powerful and sublime intensity that it would have made an excellent vegetarian entree all by itself. In fact, it even eclipsed the lamb in terms of satisfying the palate.

Sweet! As you would expect from a good French restaurant, the creme brulee ($8) had been expertly prepared, with the requisite caramelized crust above and vanilla-infused custard below. Tarte au citron ($7) was reminiscent of what we locals call Key lime pie, but without the resulting mouth pucker. The waiter helpfully provided spoons and small plates for our party without being asked.

Random items of note: La Cigale is very dimly lit, possibly because its main demographic prefers the forgiving nature of low lighting. If you have trouble reading in such an environment, bring a personal light source of some kind. If you are not comfortable choosing wine, the waiter is happy to offer you a small sample of anything you wish, which is particularly helpful when trying to determine the difference between, say, “house” and “premium” varieties. Our waiter actually used a table scraper, something we haven’t seen in a while. La Cigale has several private rooms for parties.

La Cigale

253 S.E. Fifth Ave., Delray Beach


Cuisine: French/Mediterranean

Cost: Expensive

Hours: Lunch Monday-Friday, dinner nightly

Reservations: Recommended

Credit cards: All accepted

Bar: Full bar

Sound level: Can be extremely noisy during busy hours

Outside smoking: Yes

For kids: Children’s menu, highchairs and booster seats

Specials: 5-7 p.m. happy hour with two-for-one drinks and a $5 bar tapas menu. Early-bird dinner 4:30-6 p.m. with $30 prix-fixe menu

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