Pot au Feu Bistro
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
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.
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.