Tea service begins promptly at 3:30 p.m., and the staff is busy readying the dining room. There are virginal Frette linens to steam, Riedel crystal to polish, Limoges china to set. Croissants rise in an elegant tower. Glacéed fruit tarts glisten on the sun-washed windowsill. Polished white teapots with bamboo handles and violet ribbons stand at the ready.
You’d think you were at Downton Abbey, not La Petite Dauphine, an ambitious European cafe that opened in June in a Rittenhouse brownstone. Owner David Smith is best known locally for his various roles at the old Le Bec-Fin (captain, general manager, events man), but his previous career better explains the inspiration on which Dauphine was founded: “I was a butler for eight years for some very wealthy families,” Smith says. “That’s where I got the feel and idea for this concept. People who have private staff live very well on a day-to-day basis.”
You don’t say.
“It’s a very European sensibility — quality in everyday life,” he continues, posing himself the question: “What can I do to make a guest feel special?”
I love that service philosophy, and I’ve always wanted a butler. Smith is like our very own modern-day Carson ... if Carson were the type to eat lunch from a Styrofoam clamshell while the Crawleys took their tea.
Unfortunately, that scene played out during my afternoon tea, Smith in rumpled clothes — no livery!? — hunched over takeout at Dauphine’s Illy-brewing coffee counter. That would barely be acceptable at a dive in Kensington, let alone in this chic white-on-white drawing room whose whole identity is built around dignified pleasures and spit-polished aesthetics.
The irony is pungent, and it smelled often during my visits. Finger sandwiches at tea had all the visual élan of Lunchables, four of them per guest on a plain white plate, pumpernickel and brioche crusts cut away as quick and harried as a single mom rushing her kids off to school. The omelet at brunch, an assumed easy layup for a French cafe, looked like it had been clawed by a raccoon, with what tasted like a pound of blue cheese peering through the tattered eggs. Metropolitan multigrain toast (thick-cut and burnished nicely) and fruit salad accompanied. I wish someone would have mentioned that; I wouldn’t have ordered the extra side of fruit salad. But hey, there are worse things than a surplus of berries at breakfast, right? Maybe when half of them aren’t partially rotten.
Nails jutted from the empty walls like rudimentary coat hooks. Smith says they hold vases for flowers, and indeed I see the slender floating test tubes sprouting fresh lilac on Dauphine’s website, but neither vessel nor flora were there on either of my visits. The wireless credit-card terminal wasn’t working, which I didn’t mind on my first visit but felt annoyed by at my second, more than three weeks later. Smith says spotty WiFi is to blame and that he’s looking into a hard-wired processor. A round banquette table in the corner was in various states of undress, its metal legs peeking out beneath a too-short cloth one, totally naked another. A gorgeous to-go wedge of lemon tart left the cafe in an undignified shell of crumpled aluminum foil. A porter carried trash out through the dining room. European dolce vita, meet American laziness.
These things should not happen. Not here. But if these snags, these tears in Smith’s European illusion, can be repaired, La Petite Dauphine has the potential to be the refined, high-quality experience Smith wants, so badly, us all to have.
There are some very virtuous aspects of the place, like front-of-house fixture Samira Eggstein, who exudes a sort of noble, stony graciousness even when she’s in the weeds. She also bakes that lemon tart, silky and tangy curd hemmed in paté-sucre and topped with grated lime zest.
Despite the aesthetic stumbles, the tea service really is a treat, with exotic brews from House of Tea — try the chestnutty green Dragonwell — and a deal at $26 per person. A trio of snacks kicked off the leisurely, coursed-out spread: a spoon of underseasoned mushroom fricassee, a shot of nicely seasoned tomato soup and a crostini topped with a thick smear of Fourme d’Ambert. Then came the sandwiches, of which the resounding favorite was the Dijon-laced chicken salad on an Au Fornil croissant, followed by scones piled with whipped cream and berries (fresh, this time) and finished with the three-story dessert cart — more a sleek, mobile Ikea bookcase, really, than its inspiration, Le Bec’s le grande candied carriage.
The impact is the same, though. Take your pick: tender creme caramel; cinnamony coffee cake; featherweight cheesecake with a big, addictive punch of lemon; dark-chocolate Austrian sachertorte veined with apricot marmalade; or the other cocoa masterpiece, a roulade of chocolate genoise rolled around chocolate mousseline and enrobed in chocolate buttercream. None is made on premises — construction means the downstairs kitchen is still two months out — but Smith’s sourcing should be commended. He worked in pastry way back and clearly hasn’t lost his good taste.
Official dinner service will begin when the kitchen is completed and a chef is locked down, but in the meantime, Smith is running fun little theme nights like fruits-de-mer Fridays with dollar oysters (BYO Champagne!), Wednesday cheese tastings and an $18 all-you-can-eat amped-up dessert spread for Saturday and Sunday following tea. More are planned: dinner and a (French) movie, Sunday Suppers, a lobster date night.
Smith is throwing lots ideas at the wall, banking some will stick. The nails should help.
LA PETITE DAUPHINE | 2029 Walnut St., 267-324-5244, lapetitedauphine.com. Hours: Tues.-Sun. from 8:30 a.m.; Wed. cheese tasting, 6 p.m.; Fri. fruits-de-mer, 5-8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. tea, 3:30-5:30 p.m. and dessert buffet, 5:30-8 p.m.