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!