[Sidebar] July 1 - 8, 1999
[Food Reviews]
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Rue de l'espoir

Supper with a fine old friend

by Johnette Rodriguez

99 Hope St., Providence, 751-8890
Open Tues-Fri, 7:30-11 a.m., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; 5-9 p.m.;
Sat & Sun, 8:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-9 p.m.
Major credit cards
Handicapped access

Supper at the Rue de l'espoir is like supper with an old friend; a few things may have changed, but you know the basics will be the same. As Deb Norman, owner of the 23-year-old East Side institution, explains, "I wanted to sophisticate the restaurant without sacrificing its charm."

Thus, white linen napkins have replaced country gingham as part of the ambience for dinner. Some abstracts have replaced Parisian scenes. There's fresh trim on the tin ceiling, which picks up the rich Mediterranean colors of olive, rust and cream in the new upholstery on the banquettes. But with most of the seating still divided into the intimacy of booths, this makeover just enhances the warm bistro feeling of the Rue.

The menu has expanded, but familiar sidekicks are still there, including salade nicoise and onion soup au gratin, in keeping with the French theme of the restaurant's origin. In the old days, the Rue's spinach quiche was a welcome treat for desperate vegetarians. With our Francophile memories stirred, we brushed past previous favorites among the appetizers, such as Thai crab cakes and sesame chicken to land on the lobster Madeira crepe ($6.95). This large crepe was generously stuffed with lobster and Madeira-ed mushrooms and surrounded by a delectably light bechamel sauce.

We also sampled the soup du jour ($4.95), a cream of carrot with lemon grass and coconut milk. Beautiful in color and in taste.

For my entree, I fell for the "leaning tower of portobello" ($14.95), Napoleonic in its layered construction (think: cookies) and in its aspirations to grandeur. The tower's foundation was laid with wilted chard, then roasted red peppers were piled on, followed by oregano and basil-flavored ricotta, and then a buttery risotto cake. This edifice ended with a flourish with an enormous wood-grilled portobello cap. It was surrounded by a light orange tomato oil-infused sauce. Permutations of taste sensations abounded: the risotto with the sauce, the peppers with the ricotta, the mushroom with the chard. And then new combinations presented themselves.

My husband Bill eyed my veggies longingly and suggested trading at half-time, but I held firm. Not that his choice was any less delicious than mine: grilled chicken breast ($16.95), which was sliced over the top of six large, homemade ravioli, filled with spinach, mushrooms, smoked gouda and ricotta. The dish was topped with a fresh herb pesto cream that gave a lemony hint to the succulent chicken. The ravioli were cooked to al dente perfection and their filling was quite yummy.

The array of desserts ($5.95 and $6.95) was quite stunning, though the last piece of lemon curd tart had disappeared by the time we were ready to make our own selections. Only two of the desserts are made at the Rue, the flan with fresh berries and the espresso cheesecake, so the raspberry mousse with sponge cake, the four-layer chocolate cake, the apple-cranberry pie, and even the brownie with chocolate mousse (all made by Pastry Arts) were passed over in favor of the espresso cheesecake.

Its chocolate ganache topping, with toasted hazelnuts, and its chocolate crust, plus a generous dollop of fresh whipped cream, almost broke the bank for richness. Seldom have Bill and I been unable to finish a dessert between us, usually in the time it takes to say "cheesecake," but we met our match with this dessert.

Sated and soothed by our five-for-five winners, we nonetheless took time to admire the line-up of Deborah's Garden Gourmet items on a shelf above the bar, in the adjoining pub room. Poised to launch a national sales campaign, Norman is offering 25 different products, including marinara sauces (the caponata variation is good), salad dressings, flavored olive oils, stuffed cherry peppers, pepper salads and habanero sauce. With an emphasis on fresh ingredients, Norman stresses that they are "natural food products that don't compromise great taste."

That would be an apt slogan for all of the Rue's food, be it duck or pork, tuna or shrimp, chili rellenos or fried calamari. It's good to have friends you can trust, especially when they are serving you dinner. (P.S.: the breakfasts are great, too.)

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