Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Neighborhood Restaurant: Cafe Noir

Most people have a neighborhood spot, maybe not their favorite place on earth, but reliable and, significantly, there. In NYC, once upon a time, there was a local bar where we could count on a good burger, a pitcher of beer, and a big horseshoe-shaped booth to settle in with friends. An evening stretched out for a small cash outlay. One night it was open as usual, the next day chained closed. We mourned. Still, there was another favored spot, halfway between the apartment and the parking garage (total distance: five blocks), where the pasta fagioli was cheap and filling and, if you were feeling flush, the veal francese was close to good. It closed, we moved. The next address came with a restaurant I loved; I took its closing personally. So here we are.

CAFE NOIR (125 North Main Street, Providence 401-272-2116) is a few blocks away and I/we end up there by a combination of choice and default. The restaurant is part of the Chow Fun Group (10 Steak & Sushi, Luxe, Roadhouse and the new Harry's Burgers & Beer next door) and was, in its prior life at the same address, a once hot, then not, overpriced place called XO. Chow Fun did a restaurant-in-a-box do-over two years ago and re-opened as a French bistro. One side of Cafe Noir is a narrowish room with a long bar and a banquette row of tables.  The second side is a larger dining room, the quieter place to be at 7:00 on a Friday. I prefer the bar side. The menu is a modified version of the "bistro" menu which seems to come with restaurant-in-a-box plans. What Cafe Noir has done differently is refine the menu and cut the prices. The offering list is simple and it doesn't vary. There is a plats du jour menu so you know, for instance, that leg of lamb is available Saturday and Basque cod on Wednesday. 

I like Cafe Noir. Steak and frites (there are a few variations) is a solid option, as is the hanger steak or salmon with lentils. Most of the main menu items my friends and I have tried have been good, sometimes very good. It's the salads I'm less impressed with, especially the frisee, which was recently served with stringy asparagus, low-end proscuitto, and the previously mentioned saltless egg. The tartes flambees sound better than they taste. Desserts fare better with votes going for the cinnamon raisin bread pudding. But I'm not dissing too much. It's a very comfy place - the prices are good, there's a television over the bar, the atmosphere is relaxed, the waitstaff is excellent, they're happy to see you, and it's close to my house. The bill arrives with a stick of cotton candy in a glass. My friends and I eat the trashy fluff; nobody else does.

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