Coquette (Raleigh, NC)

coquette2

image courtesy of Kaitelug.wordpress.com

After several years, I finally got a chance to try Coquette, the French restaurant in Raleigh’s North Hills.  Perhaps the main draw of this place is the atmosphere – it’s lovely.  Coquette deliberately intends to recreate that quintessential French brasserie, and comes damn close with the look and feel – black and white flooring, marble surfaces, cafe tables and chairs, nice lighting, etc.  It’s elegant and refined, and, even if it’s little vast to feel entirely cozy, it’s a beautiful place to come eat.  The only place I know in the Triangle that’s even more wonderfully French is Durham’s Vin Rouge.

Unfortunately, the food I tried did not live up to the setting.  We went for a late lunch one day, and I was hungry.  The menu runs the gamut of French standards – steak frites, moules frites, quiches, crepes, soups, you name it.  There are a handful of sandwiches as well, including a $10-$12 hamburger.  I started with the gruyere and potato croquettes ($5).  These arrived as 2 or 3 oblong balls in a cute tiny pewter-looking chalise.  They suffered principally from a very thick fried coating similar to what you’d expect on a cheap frozen fried mozzeralla stick, and were a little overcooked.  My wife thought the accompanying garlic aioli tasted like straight up butter.  We didn’t finish them.  I moved on to a “frisee aux lardons” salad (curly endive, brioche croutons, cider grain mustard vinaigrette, $7).  No complaints there.  Finally I had the “Parisian Gnocchi” (chicken confit, butternut squash, dried cranberries, spinach, $8.5).  This was listed as under  “les petits plats” (small dishes), and it wasn’t huge, but, with a salad, was definitely enough for a full meal.  The problem was it just wasn’t very good.  The gnocchi were a bit dense, but, more than that, it was a rather unappealing, uninspired combination.  My wife ordered a croque madame ($8.5), which featured a very runny egg, and came with a huge mountain of slim french fries.  She was happy enough with her meal.  I tried the fries, and they were ok.

Would I return to Coquette?  Yes, for the atmosphere, professional service, and the hopes of a good brunch perhaps.  And you feel like you’re in France.  But for outstanding French food, I’d probably head elsewhere.  My top choice in the area would be Durham’s Rue Cler.

Vin Rouge (Durham, NC)

Years ago, I was lucky enough to spend a little time in France.  One of the most fond memories I have, as you might guess, is of the excellent food.   If one restaurant in the Triangle comes closest to recreating that overall experience, it has got to be Durham’s Vin Rouge.  An institution in the Triangle, this place has served up consistently good food for many years.  But the appeal of Vin Rouge is not just about the food.  The restaurant is quintessentially French, really capturing the je ne sais quo – charm, let’s say – of a classic European eatery.

The inside is set-up rather like a home, with a sort of rambling layout of large but discreet dining rooms.  Lovely wooden tables (covered in white tablecloths), huge mirrors, and low lighting combine with a semi-open kitchen to establish a sense of unfussy elegance.  With beautiful wood floors, chandeliers, and candles on the tables in the evening, the space is warmly seductive, but it manages to achieve an easy conviviality that keeps it from being overly fancy.  Also boasting one of the most attractive patios in the Triangle, Vin Rouge is a fantastic spot for a romantic date or special occasion.

The food is strictly French, with a narrow, focused menu of bistro classics.  Although there are nightly specials, the menu doesn’t change much.  I’ve yet to try any of the fruits de mer (seafood) at Vin Rouge, but they do claim that as a specialty of the house.  Either way, you’re started off with some crusty bread served in a small metal pail.  The bread is really thinly cut, and can be too crusty.  At brunch time it’s accompanied by butter, while for the dinner service you get a small dish of excellent olive oil/olive paste for dipping.  I’ve been for brunch a number of times over the past few years, and the meals have been solid but not spectacular.  I recently ordered an omelette with mushrooms and gruyere ($9.95).  It was a huge omelette, and it came with an even larger mountain of skinny french fries, but overall it was a bit unexciting.  My wife has always been happy with their eggs Benedictine or eggs Florentine. 

But dinner has been better.  I’ve tried their decadent macaroni and cheese, and it may come closest in the Triangle to rivaling Ashley Christensen’s wonderful rendition at Poole’s.  Most recently, I ordered steak frites (hanger steak, $19.95) and a salad with lardons, blue cheese, apples, and pecans ($7.95).  The salad was tremendous – best split with another person, and very good, with just the right amount of delicate vinaigrette.  The steak was a bit chewy, though it was cooked to a very nice medium.   It was kind of over-run by the accompanying blue cheese butter and dressing from the tiny green salad on the plate.  Once again, the french fries were way too numerous but perfectly adequate.  My wife made the better entree selection – a pork chop with braised cabbage, mashed potatoes, and cider jus ($18.95).  The pork could have been a little more tender, and the sauce was close to too sweet, but really this was just plain delicious.  For dessert, we opted for the chocolate mousse, which is delivered to your table in a large serving dish, out of which the waiter scoops three little dollops into each of your bowls.  The mousse was surprisingly thick, I thought, but supremely rich and not terribly sweet. 

At Vin Rouge you can really feel like you’re in the middle of France, and you’ll get a very good meal in a gorgeous setting.  Still, when comparing Vin Rouge to Rue Cler (downtown Durham’s other upscale French restaurant), I’d have to confess a slight preference for the latter.  Rue Cler’s ambiance is not as warm as that at Vin Rouge – it’s more modern – but it’s very inviting nonetheless.  And while Vin Rouge does bistro classics very well, the food at Rue Cler is a bit more adventurous and can be stellar (see my review here), and, for brunch, at Rue Cler you have the option of some heavenly beignets.  Either way, you may not feel the need to travel all the way to France.  So let me know what you think and bon appetit!

La Farm Bakery & Cafe (Cary, NC)

croissant image courtesy of flickr

La Farm is one of the Triangle’s premier bakeries, and one of only a very few that make good artisanal loaves of bread (Loaf, Rue Cler’s Bakery, Guglhupf, and Chicken Bridge Bakery are a few others that come to mind).  So this is one of the best places to come – and folks throughout the Triangle  do – to get a good baguette, a loaf of crusty ciabatta, or a croissant.  Or, of course, for one of many delightful treats.

Despite the linguistically hybridized name, this is a thoroughly French boulangerie.  And, though it’s set in a typical Cary strip mall (seemingly far from everything), it actually manages to evoke that small Parisian cafe feel.  It’s charming inside, with delicious looking baked goods all around, and a recently expanded cafe section that spills over onto the narrow sidewalk out front.  Even if the bread wasn’t worth the trip, you’d want to come back.

But enough about the bread for now.  The cafe is tempting in its own right, with breakfast and light lunch/dinner fare on offer.  The menu features a number of sandwiches, salads, and egg dishes – nothing unexpected really, but solid choices, and a superb value for most selections.  You can get a large sandwich with a side of chips for just $6.95, and kids meals are just $2.25.  I’ve had several of the sandwiches, and, it must be said, while the bread is great, the sandwiches are merely average.  I recently had one with smoked turkey/homemade creamy slaw/peach-chipotle bbq sauce (one of this summer’s special menu additions) that was rather boring.  There just wasn’t much flavor.  My wife was similarly underwhelmed with her “Mediterraneo” (fresh mozzeralla/roasted tomatoes/basil/balsamic vinaigrette (+added chicken, $1.95) on foccacia).  Sandwiches are served with a side of homemade hearth-baked potato chips, which are crunchy but a bit lifeless; they are greatly improved by dipping in the accompanying buttermilk ranch dressing.

I’ve yet to try the egg-based or breakfast dishes, but many of them sound appealing.  Then again, if I were here for breakfast, I might just choose a buttery croissant or one of their outstanding white chocolate-cinnamon scones (I’m not a fan of the triple berry variety).  Speaking of white chocolate, everyone seems to love La Farm’s white chocolate mini-baguette, and I am no exception.  So even if you’re a little disappointed by your meal, pick up a pastry or loaf to go, and you won’t be let down.

Note that La Farm also sells at the Raleigh farmer’s market on the weekends.

Hereghty (Raleigh, NC)

image courtesy of flickr

Even if you’ve never been to France, you probably know that a nice buttery, flaky croissant is one of life’s great pleasures.  Fortunately for those of us in the triangle, you don’t have to go nearly that far to enjoy one.  Tucked away in a bland shopping center at the corner of Oberlin and Glenwood in Raleigh is Hereghty Patisserie and Cafe.   I  consider it something of a hidden gem in Raleigh, and it’s a great place to pick up a light lunch, an excellent pastry, or a decadent dessert.

Inside it’s about what you’d expect – a handful of tables, richly appointed seating, and, of course, a set of long glass cases showcasing all of the tempting options.  On one side are the cakes, tarts, and other fancy desserts; the chocolate desserts, in particular, are well worth the trip.  A chocolate mousse cake and a chocolate tart are memorable for being rich and pretty much perfect.  In the other case are scones, cookies, and, of course, croissants, among other things.  You can get a chocolate, almond, or plain croissant, but it doesn’t matter – they’re all delicious.  As for the other items, a triple berry scone I tried recently was outstanding, if a bit too similar to a muffin.  For lunch, Hereghty offers sandwiches, salads, crepes, quiches, and soup.  A turkey croissant sandwich was just right (with nice ripe tomatoes), although the accompanying green salad was nothing special.  A cup of tomat0-basil soup was fine but a little creamier and a lot less basil-y than I would have liked, though it had a nice subtle spiciness to it.  A surprising letdown was a piece of biscotti that was oddly shaped – a thin flat plank – and lacked all crispiness.

To sum it up, you won’t be disappointed if you go to Hereghty for the desserts or croissants.  If you’ve been to France, it will remind of that lovely country, and if you haven’t been, it will give a taste of it.

Review: Rue Cler (Durham, NC)

photo courtesy of flickr

Durham has celebrated restaurants, to be sure, some of which get more attention than others.  You hear about places like Magnolia Grill and Watts Grocery, and, lately, Scratch Bakery and Bull City Burger & Brewery.  And, though it is certainly not hidden, Rue Cler in downtown Durham is absolutely a gem, and indeed deserves more attention as one of the top few restaurants in the entire Triangle.

Occupying an unassuming corner in downtown, Rue Cler is a fancy restaurant without a hint of pretentiousness.  The charming space features some closely packed small tables (in the European style) and a blonde slat-wood wall adorned with beautifully printed maps of the wine regions of France.  It’s a lively spot that feels as though it could thrive in the most cosmopolitan of cities.  Without even mentioning the food, the overall vibe and ambience are so nice that you’ll want return.

Rue Cler does a wonderful brunch (featuring excellent crepes and beignets), and an even better dinner.  To top it off, a small bakery/café is attached next door where you can pick up a pastry, a loaf of bread, or a light lunch.  They’ll also sell you some excellent pizza dough if you ask.  The bakery is one of the best in the Triangle, in my opinion, and is worth seeking out on its own.

For dinner, Rue Cler offers a prix fixe menu (3-course, $30) along with a small selection of a la carte entrees and sides.  It’s a French restaurant, so the usual suspects are there – steak frites, coq au vin, pommes dauphinois – but the prix fixe menu, which changes frequently, is hard to bypass on account of its array of tempting options.  On a recent Saturday evening, my wife and I both started with the frisee salad.  Featuring candied pecans, dried cherries, and a honey vinaigrette, it was delicious and rather sweet, an effect that was not quite offset by some crumbled mild bleu cheese.  Still, it was a light and refreshing start to the meal.  For seconds, my wife opted for the shrimp crepe (spinach, leek, sauce mornay), and I went with the beef/pork/gruyere dumplings with browned butter.  Both were very good, but the crepe was augmented a little too much of the creamy, thick sauce.  My dumplings were essentially pierogies, blackened on one side, and filled with a meat mixture that approximated breakfast sausage in the best possible way.  The sage browned butter only added to the decadence and richness, but the dish was perfectly portioned, and so good that I was reluctant to share.  Lastly, for our third course, my wife chose the grilled leg of lamb with sauce Robert, herbed spaetzle, and caramelized onions, and I selected the B-line snapper with eggplant/zucchini/field pea ragout and lemon-herb crema.  The lamb was nicely cooked and carved, and boasted a very strong wine-mustard flavor.  This made the subtle herbed spaetzle, which was served as a substantial amount, a necessary complement.  My fish dish was just exquisite.  It went beautifully and delicately with the vegetables and thin sauce, and didn’t really need the crema (which, to my surprise, resembled a small dollop of lightly whipped cream that broke down immediately on contact).  Although both entrees were good, the fish dish, being more well-rounded, was the more exceptional of the two.  I savored each and every bite.

To sum it up, the three courses together made up one of the best meals I’ve eaten in the Triangle.  Everything was expertly cooked, seasoned, and portioned.  The plating was simple but elegant enough.  I don’t usually care about service either way, but I must say that in our case it too was perfect.  The pacing of the meal was just right, and the waitress was unobtrusive, efficient, and gracious.  It’s rare that a restaurant hits all of the right points and leaves you thrilled, but our dinner at Rue Cler was almost flawless.  I’m eager to return.