WHEN the holiday hype begins to squeeze the spirit, the mind seeks a quick escape. It's usually Europe around Christmas time, a remote inn in an overlooked village, preferably, snow-packed, and light years away from any glow of neon. Short of leaving town for the holidays is seeking refuge - a walk in the New Territories, a quiet dinner. Enter Papillon. Formerly known as La Rose Noire, Papillon (butterfly in French) is a civilised place, one that keeps a low profile on a backstreet in Lan Kwai Fong. The warm ambience is one reward for elbowing the crowds to get there. Since it started in 1986, the then La Rose Noire has always catered to the French community and diners who preferred something intimate to a culinary launching pad. 'It has a touch of home,' is how one French couple explained their loyalty. A drawing card was the presence of partners Michel Emeric and Patrick Herbet. The former played the piano and looked after guests with the air of yesterday's boulevardier. Herbet contributed much of the Gallic charm and colour, including his collection of natty bow-ties. When Emeric left over a year ago to pursue other ventures, Herbet made commendable changes - the dark decor was lightened, artwork added, the name was changed, and a new chef imported. Business was brisk, and Papillon still claimed one of the best lunch values in town. Last spring, when Herbet decided to concentrate on other business interests, he turned the day-to-day management over to the very able Kim Murphy, managing director of Food and Beverage Solutions (FABS). Under her umbrella is Bacchus, Oscar's and Pomeroy's. FABS food consultant-chef Darren Wightman honed the menu and freshened it. Recently, they added chef Peter Kyllonen, a Finn with cooking experience in Australia, the Middle East and recently, the French consulate here. The menu would remain essentially French, according to FABS, but with a contemporary flair. The voice over the phone when I made the reservation was welcoming. The feeling continued with manager Laurent Trenga, who greets customers, makes the rounds of the tables, and offers suggestions. In fact, his wine recommendations on a recent evening were spot on. The wine list has many affordable bottles from France and the New World in the $200-$350 range, also wine by the glass ($40) and carafe. The house wine this month is a bone-dry Sirius Bordeaux. Three of us opted for something feistier, an Aimery Vin de Pays D'or Chardonnay 1993, which held up well with appetisers and entrees of pork, chicken and liver. The menu changes often. And ones for the holiday season cater to cold weather eating: root vegetables, seafood salad in Pernod, snail ragout, beef with morel and Armagnac sauce. Christmas Eve and New Year's menus bow to tradition with roast turkey with chestnuts, duck and buche de Noel. The quality of the tuna carpaccio, thin slices you could read through, couldn't be faulted. But the sauce (olive oil, capers and lime) needed more lime than oil. The combination of salmon, blinis and sour cream never fails to entice. But the thickness of the single pancake was better suited for a breakfast stack, than something to whet the appetite. Thinner is better in this case. The warm salad of herbed goat cheese with basil oil dressing and olive toasts was first-rate. Two warm cakes of cheese on tossed greens (four varieties) came with a generous portion of tapenade (olive-anchovy spread) on toast. The cheese's richness met its foil in a puckery vinaigrette. The saute of chicken liver with crepes in red wine sauce delighted the liver-lover. But the roast pork tenderloin, a daily special, needed less cooking (it was dry) and more port wine sauce. On request, a gravy boat full of it arrived. The roasted poussin, encrusted with Dijon mustard and a thin coating of herbed bread crumbs, was fork-tender and moist. Details count. And the oven-roasted potatoes, the evening's starch, were something to swoon over. Golden brown and crusty with a salty-garlic edge, an entree-sized portion with a gutsy red wine, salad and baguette, would suffice as a feast. With three dessert-freaks, the cheese trolley wasn't in danger of being hijacked. But the mountain of roquefort looked luscious. Remember table-side cooking - all that fiery drama and singed knuckles? It lives at Papillon. The classic crepes suzettes held no surprise. Other than a lively citrus zing, it prompted a flashback to 50s dinner parties. High hopes for the tarte tartin with calvados sauce plummeted when what looked like a German apfel-kuchen arrived and tasted, according to the Londoner present, 'British'. The crust needed pre-baking (it was doughy), and the apples were saddled with a caramelised topping that looked better than it tasted. The plate that held the flambeed bananas nearly got a licking by three tongues. The hands-down favourite, the warm concoction of butter-sugar-coconut cream was glorious. The addition of roast almond ice cream did us in. No complaints. Insomnia was preferable to the weak, flavourless de-caffeinated coffee. But one speciality coffee, Normandie, provided a satin finish. After those wicked bananas, everything was an anti-climax. The evening was enjoyable, one we'd happily repeat. If Papillon can maintain its French focus, its warmth and service, it will succeed. But danger lurks when new, energetic hands take over. Being so eager to be 'creative', something gets lost. In trying to please everyone, the distinctiveness is surrendered. Introducing the new Papillon, FABS talks about culinary 'synergy', a 'new attitude' and their aim to present 'contemporary' French food. How that manifesto will be carried out in 1995 is anyone's guess. Trying to make everyone happy may work at Pomeroy's, but at Papillon, it will snuff out the character that has made it a special place.