Picture imperfect

In an age when people pay money for logo-emblazoned T-shirts that provide free advertising to the seller, brand awareness is everything. This lesson is one that L’Image—a restaurant in an upscale mall, with a menu that name-drops chichi food at the slightest provocation—has taken thoroughly to heart, from its all-too-revealing name to the allied beauty shop next door, also called L’Image. There, Bulgari gift soaps sit across from Prada bags, and lists of celebrity devotees hang next to product lines.

This focus on the famous would seem to come naturally; L’Image is owned by Ana Divac, wife of Sacramento Kings center Vlade. Apparently, the restaurant can be a bit of a celebrity hangout—certainly the extreme, uncomfortable depth of the banquette seems designed for basketball players’ long thighs—but things were quiet on a recent Saturday. With the Kings losing badly in the fourth quarter that day, the staff stood around aimlessly, wondering whether to turn off the TV if the deficit reached 30 points. “It’s bringing everyone down,” said the guy behind the bar. I wasn’t sure whom it could be affecting, besides the staff. There were some full tables on the patio, but my husband and I were alone in the opulent dining room at about 6:30 p.m.

The décor seemed to aim for luxury, but it took a wrong turn and ended up at slightly creepy. Grimly imperial Bonaparte faces stared out of giant portraits on walls dotted with fleur-de-lis; the sconces, we realized in the middle of our salad course, were modeled on beefy forearms, with clenched fists holding up the lights. The overall effect was that of an abandoned Napoleonic palace redecorated by the Addams family.

The menu and food, similarly, got French neoclassicism just a bit wrong. The appetizers, from grilled artichoke to brandade beignets, sounded great. But pissaladière (an onion-topped flatbread that’s like a Southern French version of pizza) was curiously dull, except for spots of flavor provided, for better or for worse, by green olives and marinated white anchovies. (I liked the anchovies but sneaked my olives onto my husband’s plate; he palmed off his anchovies on me.) The caramelized onions were vaguely sweet, but their main role seemed to be to turn the under-salted crust almost slimy where it met the toppings. A drizzling of crème fraîche—which, the menu advised, came from Cowgirl Creamery—was just plain weird; it added nothing to the dish but calories and, of course, a name brand. It also was out of step with French regional cooking: pissaladière comes from Provence, and cream and dairy characterize Northern French cuisine.

The tasty “salade de Roquefort,” with dried fruit, pungent arugula, and Point Reyes blue cheese, also suffered from a disjunction. I love Point Reyes blue, but Roquefort is quite a different cheese, and its makers—not to mention the French government—no doubt would be horrified to see their appellation d’origine controlée borrowed to advertise a salad with this gutsy all-American blue.

Thankfully, the menu’s pretensions don’t extend to the staff. Our affable waiter was knowledgeable without being stuffy, giving me the scoop on the unfamiliar wine “Crustaces,” recommended with the skate wing I ordered. (It was a crisp Alsatian white.)

I rarely see skate on menus, so I was looking forward to the classic presentation with caper brown butter. Although the fan-shaped fish was well-cooked, it sat on top of gluey, too-buttery mashed potatoes. Worse, the dish was bland, a flaw the kitchen could have avoided simply by using ordinary capers. Instead, the garnish of two dramatic, olive-sized caper berries looked pretty but kept its flavor to itself. A wider scattering of more plebeian capers would have added much-needed salty, briny notes.

The duck confit was more flavorful, though the skin was flabby and the meat slightly stringy. The dish came with greens, sweet-potato dumplings, and a little too much of a nicely balanced orange marmalade sauce—it was good with the bitter greens, but it overwhelmed the pleasantly doughy dumplings.

Our waiter warned that if we wanted a chocolate soufflé for dessert, we should order it early. We did, and it was a gooey delight, under-baked to just the right fragile puffiness and accompanied by sweet crème anglaise dotted with bitter, crunchy cocoa nibs. It was the best dish we tried—and one of the least pretentiously described things on the menu.

L’Image, which also serves breakfast and lunch, may be more satisfying for a drop-in daytime shopping crowd than as a dinner destination. The food isn’t really bad, but it’s not quite good enough to match the pedigreed menu, the splashy surroundings or the prices. Eating at L’Image is about as rewarding as any other kind of consumerism. Things aren’t so much well-made as cleverly pitched, and you leave feeling like you’ve been had, in the glossiest possible way. In the end, it is all about image.