Brasserie Molliere, South Norwalk


★★ (Very Good)

Years ago there was a French restaurant called Côte d'Azur on Washington Street in South Norwalk. Provençal in look and flavor, with coq au vin on the menu and a glass urn of apricots and cherries in liqueur on the bar, it was charming, affordable and beloved by a loyal coterie of fans who missed it sorely when it closed to make way for celebrity-driven, short-lived Bamboo. A good Italian restaurant soon occupied the space but those of us who cherish SoNo's colorful diversity kept hoping for another French place to sustain the mix. Last year, with zero fanfare, Brasserie Molliere opened around the corner on North Main Street.

Occupying a big, barnlike space where several restaurants have tried and failed, Brasserie Molliere lacks the intimacy of a tiny bistro and as yet has not achieved the cheerful bustle of a crowded big-city brasserie. Which is a shame because it's a find. Here gathered together on one menu is a mouthwatering array of the dishes that virtually define bistro dining in the Quartier Latin, on the waterfront in Marseilles, in Toulouse, in Normandy, in dreams, in memory. 

A quick reconnaissance foray with my brother-in-law whetted my appetite for goodies untasted. What we did taste was addictively delicious: onion soup, a heady brew of golden onions in an intense multi-nuanced broth under bubbling-hot Grûyère melting and running over the sides of a classic clay pot; a seductive appetizer of shrimp and crabmeat in a luxe Louis-type sauce piled in two halves of a perfectly ripe avocado. Decidedly worth returning (with three Francophile friends) to do a full-scale review.

Homemade pâté "from the chef" was a chunky, tasty blend of pork and herbs liberally spiked with cognac. Served with cornichons and good, sharp mustard, it was a country picnic on a plate. The "foie gras frais maison" was more urbane, an over-the-top presentation featuring large luscious slices of foie gras, lightly seared, served on toast and covered with blueberry sauce. The sauce, dark, rich, complex, tasted a lot better than it sounds and I found myself spooning up every bit despite the fact that there was really too much of it. Foie gras this good could and should be allowed to shine on its own. A generous portion of nicely smoked salmon, on the other hand, will be remembered for the wonderful fresh horseradish sauce served alongside.

Salade frisée aux lardons is traditionally made with frisée, a feathery, slightly bitter member of the chicory family, snippets of lean bacon and sautéed croutons. Sometimes it's topped with a poached egg and vinaigrette, which combines with the egg yolk to form a creamy dressing. I'm crazy about this salad and am delighted to see it popping up again on menus everywhere. Brasserie Molliere's version, however, buries the prickly greens under a ton of Roquefort cheese and bacon-an embarrassment of riches. Salad for people who don't like salad?

On my first visit to Brasserie Molliere, I saw gorgeous, flame-red Le Creuset casseroles going by, conjuring visions of coq au vin and cassoulet. The second time around, I made sure that the first entrée we ordered was cassoulet Toulousin. It arrived, not in a crock or a casserole but laid out on a flat plate.  The traditional components-duck confit, garlic sausage and white beans, a sprig of thyme-were all there, slow-cooked to harmonize the flavors. The cassoulet still qualified as a welcome treat that would take hours to emulate at home-but a bit of the drama was missing. Coq au vin, too, would have been more glamorous served in a casserole, but it was slowly and carefully cooked and laved in a rich dark sauce. Both dishes were bounteous enough for two. So was an entrée of seven-hour braised lamb shank. Seven hours? I can believe it, so multinuanced and well-married was the sauce, so tender the meat.

Canard à l'orange, starring a plump, organic moulard duck glazed and sauced with Grand Marnier and orange slices, looked downright noble on the plate and tasted as rich as it looked-albeit not flamed at the table as the word "flambé" on the menu indicated.

In the overall scheme of things, Brasserie Molliere's shortcomings are by no means deal-breakers. French cuisine is complex and arduous. Reaching for the sky widens the margin of error. In time Brasserie Molliere may narrow the gap, sharpen its service and come into its own.

In the meantime, there is much to enjoy, not the least of which is dessert. Forget pâtisserie and think Grandma's kitchen. Think old-fashioned ice cream parlor-for adults, à la Française. Apple gelato swirled with calvados in a champagne flute; a luscious mélange of custard, chocolate and pistachio gelato, topped with crunchy pistachio praline; an elaborate layered tower of white and dark chocolate mousse, rice puffs and sponge cake with a chocolate glaze decorated with a chocolate diamond. Not to mention homey tarte tatin and heavenly Grand Marnier soufflé. So très jolie. So SoNo on the Seine.

Brasserie Molliere
15 North Main St., South Norwalk (203/855-7660)

Lunch and dinner Monday through Friday noon to 11 p.m., lunch and dinner Saturday and Sunday noon to midnight, Sunday brunch and lunch 11:30 to 4. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers  $7.50 to $18, entrées $23 to $33, desserts $8.50 to $11.

Brasserie Molliere, South Norwalk

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