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Venue Review: Vin Rouge

Savor the flavor of French bistro fare
Vin Rouge
By "Greg Cox"

On one side of the main dining room at Vin Rouge, through a doorway hung with velvet drapes, is a smaller room. Chandeliers drip with Chantilly lace, and vintage black-and-white glossies of French movie stars dot the cranberry-red walls. It's one of the most romantic dining spots in the Triangle.

Vin Rouge's patio is another. Half of the space is enclosed by walls painted in sunny pastels and hung with faux windows and flower boxes. The other half holds tables draped in crisp linen under an open sky. Depending on where you sit, the atmosphere is either Mediterranean courtyard or Monet's garden.

But the main dining room best captures the true spirit of Vin Rouge. From the ceramic pig chef that greets you just inside the door to the pile of baguettes on a sturdy antique farmhouse table to the grape-cluster chandeliers suspended over the cozy bar at the back of the room, the setting is singularly suited to the French bistro fare that defines the Vin Rouge experience.

The kitchen had drifted from that definition until about a year and a half ago. Then Matt Kelly, a young chef whose star-studded resume includes work at Fearrington House and the internationally acclaimed Inn at Little Washington in Virginia took over. His resume notably lacks experience in France, but you'd never know it from his cooking.

Kelly does a Lyonnaise style salad of frisee, roasted potatoes and crunchy lardons of bacon topped with a perfect frizzle-edged fried egg, for instance, that would be right at home in a roadside inn in Burgundy. As would his charcuterie platter, a lavish spread of house-made and imported pates and sausages, served with all the traditional garnishes. And his caramelized onion and goat cheese tart is a textbook rendition of a buttery crust.

Even with nightly specials that allow the chef a bit of creative license, he never loses touch with the bistro spirit. An heirloom tomato salad with arugula and shaved Parmiggiano Reggiano, for instance, is accented with pistou (France's answer to pesto) and garnished with balsamic gelee. Pan-seared skate, offered as a fish special, is paired with a caper sauce whose brassy notes are evocative of Provence.

Kelly offers a concession to American tastes with his rendition of steak frites, substituting New York strip for the traditional hanger steak. The substitution is undeniably more tender than the original, though purists would argue it isn't as flavorful.

Those purists would be well advised to drop in on a Tuesday night, when the supremely flavorful flat iron steak is the plat du jour. And if it happens to be one of those nights when the chef decides to set the steak atop a bed of sauteed spinach and top it with plump oysters and a Pernod-tinged hollandaise in a sort of Gallic marriage of carpetbagger steak and oysters Rockefeller, then so much the better. You can always add a side order of the frites, which are first rate.

Thursday nights, when the plat du jour is sweetbreads, the place is frequently packed with people who have come specifically for a fix of this hard-to-find delicacy.

Sauteed calf's liver is available every night, as are boudin blanc, a delicate, airy-textured sausage of pork and chicken served with braised Savoy cabbage and pureed potatoes, and a rustic, bacon-accented gratin of macaroni and gruyere. It's hard to go wrong, so feel free to go with your mood.

That's not to say that the chef is perfect. The oysters in his oysters gratinee are overwhelmed by a thick layer of molten cheese. And bouillabaisse was recently marred by too much salt.

Those stopping by for a quick bite at the bar will find croque monsieur and croque madame sandwiches, as well as salade nicoise and a classic rendition of a French omelet. They'll also find a very good selection of wines from an exclusively French list.

Vin Rouge is owned by Giorgios Bakatsias, whose other restaurants include Parizade and City Kitchen. Bakatsias' famous flair for dramatic decor is evident throughout Vin Rouge. Now the kitchen lives up to that promise.

Reviews & Comments
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Aug 26 2005 12:00AM - Triangle.com - Greg Cox

The setting is classic French bistro, with a patio in back reminiscent of a Mediterranean courtyard. The food keeps the mood alive with classics such as Lyonnaise-style fris

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