The first time I strolled the streets of Paris was on a balmy late morning one long-ago mid-October. I set out from my garret and wandered in the general direction of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Like any good Américain, I sipped coffee at one of Deux Magots' sidewalk tables, then headed to a bustling little bistro around the corner for lunch. It was one of the half-dozen most memorable meals of my life. Creamy, tender foie gras and a glass of sweet, icy sauternes was followed by half of a perfectly crisp and juicy roast duckling with turnips, a pile of mustardy watercress, a carafe of velvety house vin rouge, and a fragrant baguette. A delicate pear tart and a snifter of warming Calvados concluded a most fulfilling afternoon. There were no rich sauces, no exotic ingredients or freshly plucked hummingbird's tongues, just simple foodstuffs raised to the level of art by balance and sensuality and the careful ministrations that make the best French food so rich, deep, and soulful.
This level of dedicated, carefully nurtured panache and expertise is difficult to replicate in the New World. You can't just open a jug of Hearty Burgundy and toss some snails in the skillet and expect to end up with the depths and flavors that French provincial dishes — the country's soul food — deliver to the taste buds.
Rendez-Vous, a new French bistro along Albany's quasi-chic Solano Avenue, tries awfully hard to bring a bit of Montmartre to the East Bay. The menu is rife with coq au vin, steak frites, and other bistro classics. Wall murals depict Parisian landmarks in big, colorful brushstrokes. Canopies labeled with different arrondissements shelter intimate banquettes. There are even sidewalk tables ideal for Albanian-watching. And while the overall effect is slightly faux-French theme park, and several dishes don't do justice to the lush originals, many approach the splendors of the Gallic culinary tradition. If you avoid the occasional landmine you can sample a hint of Gallic glory at a most reasonable stipend.
A good case in point is gougère, the classic Burgundian savory. Pâte à choux, the tender puff pastry used in eclairs and profiteroles, encloses a filling of brie, roasted garlic, and shards of moist chicken. The result is a rich, surprisingly delicate appetizer imaginatively accented with a compote of stewed apricot. Another starter coats succulent artichoke hearts in cornmeal and fries them until hot, crunchy, and delectable, a saucer of (unnecessary) pesto at hand. But two hallmarks of French cooking, onion soup and salade Niçoise, don't fare as well. The soup, while sweet with the flavor of slow-cooked onion, lacks the hearty gravitas that raises this dish to soul-warming status. And the house Niçoise just sits there: thick slabs of chewy raw tuna, lifeless, unwieldy string beans, indifferently dressed lettuce, and the occasional chunk of new potato, a few measly olives and anchovies delivering the plate's only bit of pizzazz.
Among the entrées, the côte de porc employs grilled pork in the proto-Germanic Alsatian manner with some success despite the chop's chewy nature. The lush flavor of the meat is deliciously set against pungent mustard greens, shards of smoky bacon, and chunks of sweet caramelized apple, with a spiky green peppercorn-laced cider sauce and a bed of creamy, buttery grits providing cushion and contrast. The côtelletes d'agneau (grilled lamb chops) aren't as successful; the meat here is not only overcooked, it lacks any discernible flavor, and its platemates — tough couscous, oily cherry tomatoes, seared asparagus with all the flavor cooked out of it — are undistinguished. The bouillabaisse is the greatest disappointment. The rich, spicy seafood extravaganza of the Marseilles waterfront is reduced here to a few chewy, overcooked prawns, scallops, mussels, and calamari in a thin, tepid broth lacking any memory of garlic, saffron, or the sea.
But two slow-cooked, wine-based signature dishes, coq au vin and beef daube, capture the soulful essence of French Provincial cooking with skill. The chicken meat, tender and purple from its long companionship with le vin rouge, exudes a wonderfully fruity, bracing, tangy flavor nicely complemented by the onions and mushrooms it was cooked with. And the daube is a real triumph of hearty, slow-cooked comfort food, the meat and wine and carrots and herbs marinating and braising and commingling into a rich, fragrant, absolutely fulfilling meal.
Desserts are uniformly delectable. The strawberry shortcake is particularly yummy, especially nowadays when the berries are at their ripest, reddest, and juiciest. A light and savory biscuit is split and filled with glazed, ruby-hued fruit, a dollop of whipped cream and, in the spirit of excess, a pillow of soft, sweet strawberry ice cream. The result is as vertiginous in stature as it is blissful on the taste buds. The chocolate cherry cheesecake trifle is a culinary circus in a goblet, a gustatory archaeological dig in which the diner excavates first a layer of brandied cherries, then rich, dark bittersweet fudge, then silken, puckery cheesecake complete with a buttery underpinning of graham cracker crust: yum. The dessert menu's one foray into French cookery is a rather eggy crème brûlée with a serviceable burnt-sugar chapeau, while the espresso float is simplicity itself: nothing but a big coffee cup of Peet's rocket fuel cooled with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and irresistible for all that.
Vegetarians can put together a creditable repast here. Begin with the fried artichoke hearts, a platter of cheeses, the onion or vegetable soup or a mixed-green, Niçoise, or radish-apple-arugula salad. Entrée options include fettuccine with butter and Parmesan, a crepe stuffed with Havarti, spring vegetables, and red pepper coulis, and tomato-eggplant-zucchini ratatouille, Provence's great contribution to vegetarian cuisine. Or order up a parade of meatless side dishes: corn ragu, sautéed greens, seared asparagus, zucchini and cherry tomatoes with garlic, a bowl of those dreamy-creamy grits.
Curiously for a wannabe bistro, Rendez-Vous' wine list is decidedly limited, offering a mere six viticultural options: a pinot, a cab, and a chardonnay at $6 to $7 per glass among the house wines plus three slightly pricier selections (a Pouilly-Fuissé, a Beaujolais, and the Château Coufran Haut-Médoc, a nice complement to the pork chop). Trumer Pils and Stella Artois are available as well, as is (naturellement) Evian and Perrier. The bistro itself is friendly and festive, service is affable and attentive.
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