Loie Fuller’s | 1455 Westminster St, Providence |Wed-Mon, 5-10:30 pm |Major credit cards |Beer + wine | Sidewalk-level access | 401.273.4375
The bistro Loie Fuller’s, like its namesake, manages to be demure and flamboyant at the same time. From the outside it’s a mysterious jewel box of a place, a small Greek revival rectangle with an oddly ornate façade and no business sign, only an intertwined L and F here and there.
Inside, it’s a trip. You have stepped back in time and place, to late 19th-century Paris, and you shouldn’t be surprised to see Toulouse-Lautrec sketching a redhead tending the bar. An intricately decorative mosaic floor swirls at your feet. If Loie Fuller were to walk in beside you, that graceful free-dance inspiration for Isadora Duncan would feel right at home.
Entering the dining room will prompt a déjà vu of the bar area — plus a Mon Dieu! or two — for the extensive wall treatment. The Art Nouveau lovelies of the barroom have company here as they hold flowers or simply bask, elegantly draped. A beautiful design in mahogany loops about, framing freeform mirrors. The mysteriously illuminated light fixture flush to the ceiling might remind you of a Monet lily pond. Artist Kyla Coburn had a blast designing the place.
On the chilly evening of our visit, we were seated next to a working fireplace, which was as intricately Art Nouveau as its surroundings, of course. I immediately checked out the menu to see what dishes have been chosen to take advantage of this scene setting.
Imagination was the common factor with the entrées. Because the restaurant is French, there was coquille Saint-Jacques baked in its béchamel sauce with a mushroom duxelle (the $12 price is not a typo). But the sauce on the pan-seared Arctic char was pomegranate “molasses” (a reduction with sugar and lemon juice), and the scallops had the only traditional French cream and butter sauce on the menu. The Cornish hen, with its herbed bacon and chestnut stuffing, was braised with stout. The prices sent us back in time as well, with the $20 rack of lamb the most expensive item. Offering only seven main courses is a way to keep prices down.
The wines lean heavily to the French — among the whites, an Italian Orvieto was the only exception. There are 18 bottled beers, and among the half-dozen on tap, most are hard to find, including the fruity Lindemans Framboise and other Belgian rarities.
Most of the appetizers have a Gallic touch, too. There are escargots ($6) and a crispy duck leg confit with warm Camembert and clementines ($10). You don’t have to count the Cajun shrimp ($10) as French, but you have to respect the kitchen going to the trouble of making boudin ($8), a veal and pork sausage I haven’t had outside Louisiana.
We started with a warm roasted beet and celery root salad ($6) and complemented it with a fuile bread ($5), hot with its stuffing of caramelized onions and plenty of Nicoise olives. This salad was an attractively presented terrine of the vegetables, cubed and tossed with Champagne vinaigrette, chevre melting into it all, topped with a contrasting garnish of bitter frisée. It was delicious.
Johnnie had an appetite for the vegetable pot pie ($12). In a puff pastry were various roasted vegetables, from Brussels sprouts and broccoli to mushrooms, onions, and a soupçon of carrots. If hungrier, she could have had a side of sweet potato and onion gratin ($4). Other à la carte items include bacon and chestnut stuffing ($5), and those Brussels sprouts ($3) again, roasted, a brave offering, since it’s so easy to turn them cabbagey.
My dish sounded odd to me on a French menu, but I later learned that it is a traditional country dish. Pork cheeks ($15), as they are listed here, are plain ol’ pork jowls, po’ folk food down South. They’re also the most tender meat on the animal, like the melt-and-your-mouth “oyster” of a turkey or chicken. This is Kurobuta pork, from those black pigs noted for their taste, slow-cooked in port wine to make a rich brown sauce and served aside apple risotto. This is a marvelous dish, full of deep flavors and nicely complemented by the creamy risotto.
You can end things with an elaborate cheese plate ($12) or a simple milk chocolate pot de crème ($3.50). We considered the warm apple tart with cinnamon ice cream ($6), but chose the hazelnut poundcake with (Bailey’s) Irish crème anglaise ($5.50). The cake was tasty, though we couldn’t detect hazelnuts, and the pudding-like sauce was an unusual treat.
Thank you, owner Michael Sears, who also established Lili Marlene’s on Federal Hill. Merci, chef Eric Wolf, formerly of CAV.
Garçon — absinthe all around!