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Pot au Feu Bistro

Delicious decadence

by Bill Rodriguez

44 Custom House Street, Providence, 273-8953
Open Mon-Thurs, 5:30-9 p.m.
Fri, 5:30-10 p.m., Sat, 5:30-11 p.m., Sun, 4-9 p.m.
Major credit cards
No handicapped access

Despite their unfathomable regard for Jerry Lewis, the French have always maintained a decadence you can respect and admire -- and really sink your teeth into, when it comes to food. Trouble is, splurging on a French restaurant like Pot au Feu requires playing dress-up, or at least getting into the frame of mind to keep your elbows off the table. And when you're trying to work up some decadence, that can be a deal-breaker.

What you need then is a culinary Plan B, like the Pot au Feu Bistro. It's cleverly situated below the fancier place, like the servants' quarters at a chateau where all the fun stuff happens. You go down the stairs to a dimly lit basement restaurant that looks like the traditional continental "cavs." There's a cask of Beaujolais Nouveau behind the bar and a Paris Metro map in front of it. Here you may dangle Galois Disc Bleus and cough to your heart's content. As I sipped my glass of vin rouge ordinaire, a worker passed while wearing the traditional kitchen couture napkin, tied at the corners, on his head. In this aforementioned quest for informality, I much preferred this sight to that of a serviette fashioned into a swan or an escargot on my table.

In the dining room proper, the walls are rough stone for the top half, distressed brick on the bottom, with a midway ledge supporting scores of empty wine bottles, like a Gallic version of a frat room beer can collection. But the atmosphere, while not elegant, is civilized. Pink blossoms of alstroemeria graced every table, alongside oil lamps with fleur-de- lis cutouts. A circulating server frequently asks if you would like another slice of fresh-from-oven French bread, hot and melt-in-your-mouth delicious with help from the pot of butter on your table.

Butter. Don't forget where you are. This is not a place where you ask for olive oil in lieu of the hard stuff. Real hommes do eat quiche ($9.95) here, although if the cholesterol content of that is insufficient, there are three varieties of pate available, from the house version ($5.95) with chicken liver and brandy, to authentic duck liver pate ($15). Even the terrine de printemps appetizer ($5.95) -- grilled vegetables with a balsamic reduction -- does not get out of the kitchen without a layer of chèvre.

On the cheese matter, we had an amiable chat with Bob Burke, the Pot au Feu proprietor, natty with his omnipresent bow tie (never known to dangle into a pot being sampled). Why is it, he asks, that only when cheese is not included in studies of dairy product consumption is heart disease shown to increase?

Since I've never failed to have a crock of the bistro's definitive, Gruyere-topped baked soupe a l'oignon ($5.95), that argument fell on eager ears. I'd have the soup, heavy on rosemary and thyme, rich with beef stock, for breakfast if I could. A big homard fan, Johnnie had the lobster bisque ($6.95), which she reported as creamy rich and flavorful -- so much so, apparently, that she didn't even save me a slurp. Decadence has that effect on people. Mesclun salads came prior to our entrées, with cruets of both the house vinaigrettes, equally tangy raspberry and mustard.

For my entrée, I looked forward to the caneton framboise ($18.95), which was described as "confit duck leg and breast." That was confusing, because it led me to expect confit of duck, which is deboned and potted duck meat cooked in its own fat. However, the confit part was merely the accompanying fruit sauce, sometimes also called confit, consisting of raspberry and caramelized orange. Nevertheless, the baked duck was delicious and the sauce a tasty complement to the moist dark meat.

Johnnie had the sole Indienne ($17.95), perhaps nostalgic for Bloomington, perhaps just hankering for seafood. She didn't say which. No fewer than three fillets were coated with curried flour and lightly pan fried. She did say they were yummy and cooked with restraint. She wished that the curry came through more, but suggested that might have overpowered the delicately flavored fish. Both our dishes came with a medley of vegetables and baked potatoes -- hers with a sweet potato -- which we chose over rice.

No one can leave here, or any French restaurant, in good conscience without having dessert. Usually we share, but we each had one to continue the spirit of overindulgence. Soul of restraint that I am, I chose the grapefruit sorbet ($5.95), a delicate palate cleanser with a pleasantly surprising hint of clove. Rather than having a modest creme brulée, Johnnie plunged right into the pot de chocolat au creme ($4.95), which is the densest bittersweet chocolate, much thicker than mousse, ever put to spoon. Delicious.

The Pot au Feu Bistro is a special place. But diet first, or at least skip breakfast. Even Humphrey Bogart on the L'odysse de l'African Queen poster looks a little plumper than usual.

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