What do you call it when a couple of partners open a restaurant in downtown Durham -- an area that has struggled unsuccessfully for years to overcome an image of dreariness and dilapidation -- and they name the restaurant Rue Cler, after the famous street in Paris that is home to a postcard-charming open air market? Do you call it wildly optimistic?
Not if you know that the partners are Chris Stinnett and John Vandergrift, a team that has a proven record as the chef/proprietors of the ever-popular Pop's. Once you've dined on Rue Cler's quintessential French bistro cuisine -- or, for that matter, lunched at the adjoining artisanal bakery and cafe -- you'll realize that the name is a perfect fit. You might even be willing to bet the kids' college funds on Rue Cler's success.
By no means will you be the only one in the betting pool. Since the restaurant opened in October, word of mouth has spread so quickly among foodies that it's a good idea to arrive for dinner within an hour of the 5:30 p.m. opening if you want to avoid the waiting list. Not that cooling your heels at Rue Cler's cozy bar is such a bad thing. The superb all-French wine list features only 16 wines by the bottle and four by the glass or carafe, but believe me, the selection more than makes up in quality and variety what it lacks in quantity.
True to the bistro spirit, the seasonally changing menu offers two ways to order: prix fixe (three courses, three choices per course, for $25) or a la carte. Either way, you're in for the best bargain since France converted to the euro.
Order prix fixe from the current menu, and you can't miss by leading off with the arugula salad, impeccably dressed in a classic vinaigrette and spangled with dried sour cherries, toasted almonds and Parmiggiano Reggiano. Then again, on a cold winter night it's nearly impossible to resist the temptation of Rue Cler's earthy, soul-satisfying parsnip soup.
For the second course, the duck confit with spaetzle and leek cream is a must. Unless you're squeamish about duck, that is, in which case ask your waiter if the Toulouse sausage is house-made. It generally is, though it's occasionally sold out, and a commercial product (good, but not as good as that produced by Messrs. Stinnett and Vandergrift) is substituted. If it is, by all means go for it. If not, the chevre and tomato confit crepe won't let you down.
Judging by its frequent appearance on the tables around me, I'd guess the North Carolina wild bass with wild rice and fennel broth is the most popular third-course option. And I certainly couldn't fault the wisdom of that choice. But given the rarity of calf's liver -- especially impeccably cooked calf's liver, as it is done here -- I can't imagine a fan of that dish passing it up. However, I can't recommend the braised pork shank, which was dry when I tried it -- inexplicably so, given the cooking method.
If you're ordering a la carte, start with French onion soup or salade frisee topped with a fried egg and crunchy bits of house-cured bacon. As for entrees, believe me, I'm not copping out when I say it's a toss-up among the four I sampled. Steak frites, moules frites (mussels so plump they squirt when you bite into them, paired with crisp shoestring fries), coq au vin, bistro-style roast chicken -- take your pick, you can't miss.
Dessert options include a textbook creme brulee, a rustic Bing cherry-chocolate crepe that's big enough to share, and mille-feuille framboise, an ethereally light tower of puff pastry, raspberries and creme anglaise. Any of these, paired with a glass of rose d'Anjou (or coffee, if you must), are sure to keep the bistro mood going into the evening.
Stinnett and Vandergrift didn't try to reinforce Rue Cler's mood with a classic Parisian bistro decor, opting instead for an urban contemporary look. Trust me, they know what they're doing. The food and wine provide all the bistro atmosphere you'll need.
Greg Cox can be reached at email@example.com.