Le Laurentis Brasserie, Lakeville
★★½ (Very Good-Superior)
Ernest Hemingway, who called Paris “a moveable feast,” would love Le Laurentis. The atmosphere is so French it feels as if at any moment James Joyce, Max Ernst, André Gide or even Honoré de Balzac might drop in to discuss art and poetry over a bowl of moules marinières or a plate of saucisson à la Lyonnaise.
This warmth, this conviviality and the deeply satisfying bistro-style food and wine that engenders them are what owner George Courgnaud had in mind when he opened Le Laurentis Brasserie at the start of what proved to be Connecticut’s wildest winter in ages.
My first visit was on a Friday night. Arriving early, we found the place empty but the staff was so attentive, the food so delicious and the wine so affordable, we stayed late watching the restaurant fill up, and I vowed to return with a larger contingent of friends to sample more of the menu.
First, I supplied myself with a few pertinent facts. George Cour-gnaud’s accent is authentic—he hails from the Champagne province of France, where his family ran a restaurant for four generations. He himself has run restaurants and worked as a consultant in New Orleans, New Hampshire, Colonial Williamsburg and the Caribbean. Moving to Northwest Connecticut six years ago, he worked as a wine dealer until a friend encouraged him to open a restaurant of his own in Lakeville.
When he did, it was not to astound the world with something new but to bring back something loved and lost: a French bistro like the ones Americans went to Paris for in the ’20s and ’30s and, prompted by books, movies and Edith Piaf recordings, have been yearning for ever since.
Relaxed, unpretentious and irresistibly appealing, Le Laurentis serves the food Cour-gnaud grew up on—honest, home-style bistro favorites like steak frites, blanquette de veau and duck à l’orange. “I haven’t had food like this in years,” customers often exclaim. I agree, but equally astonishing are the prices. No bottle of wine costs more than $25. Entrées include vegetables and cost no more than $20, usually less.
With that reassurance, our research party ordered with abandon, starting with saucisson à la Lyonnaise, a heaping plate of gloriously tasty country pork sausage served warm with butter-gilded sliced potatoes and onions. True to bistro tradition, the menu is a reliable list of favorite dishes regular customers know they can count on when they come in—plus a few daily specials for variety.
The night we were there, calves’ liver was the special and we immediately put in an order. But first we had to have celeri remoulade, which is on the regular appetizer list at Le Laurentis—and nowadays almost nowhere else in Connecticut. Made with the gnarly root of the celery plant, peeled, coarsely grated and served raw, it is nutlike in texture and flavor, a perfect foil for the traditional dressing, a mustard and lemon-spiked vinaigrette. Thank you, Monsieur Courgnaud, for reintroducing this crunchy classic.
We also liked a bountiful ratatouille, combining diced green peppers, tomatoes, onions and eggplant braised just enough to release and slightly meld the flavors without reducing the vegetables to mush.
Only the salade frisée aux lardons disappointed, but just a little. My memories of this classic always had a lightly poached egg on top to be pricked with a fork, releasing a golden flood of yolk over prickly vinegary greens. At Le Laurentis, the chickory was cut in smaller pieces and mixed with lardons, croutons, shallots, cheese and a sliced hard-boiled egg—a nice chopped salad but I missed that touch of ritualistic magic.
Yet nostalgia came back full force when we got to the entrée section of the menu, which was headed, with Gallic tongue in cheek, “Plats de Résistance.” Duck à l’orange was the real thing, a roasted half duckling, crisp-skinned, juicy inside and glistening with the beautiful orange sauce that gave this dish its lasting fame. A timbale of overcooked, pasty white rice was easily ignored, and in my opinion should be.
Rainbow trout meunière was light and lovely, sautéed with less butter than is sometimes done, yet silky and moist, tasting as fresh as a mountain stream with a wisp of lemon and parsley for sparkle.
Steak frites featured bistro steak as bistro steak always has been and its fans expect it to be—tender, tasty, flipped on and off the grill so fast that while it’s marked with char, it is still pink inside. Yes, it’s thin. Maybe that’s why French women don’t get fat. They probably don’t eat the French fries either. But at Le Laurentis, the fries, thin, pale gold, crisp, elusively flavorful and piping hot, were impossible to resist. We ate the lot. The evening’s special was indeed special. Nobody does calves’ liver like the French and Le Laurentis delivered a perfect rendition. Buttery texture, mild flavor, wonderful sauce.
For dessert, crème caramel, chocolate mousse and tarte tatin did the genre proud. But I had pinned my hopes on ile flottante, my long-lost favorite floating island. Only when it arrived did I discover that it was not my floating island, which I make (and often do not make because it’s so much trouble) by poaching egg white meringues in boiling water, making a soft custard with the yolks, floating the meringues on the custard and serving it right away—with a pitcher of caramel sauce if I have time to make some.
At Laurentis, a prebaked meringue is underlaid with custard sauce swirled with . . . strawberry purée. Well, why not? According to a recipe I came across recently, at Thomas Keller’s famous French Laundry ile flottant involves baked meringues and chocolate custard. Chacun à son goût. And vive Le Laurentis!
Le Laurentis Brasserie
227 Main St., Lakeville (860/596-4231)
Lunch Sunday, Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday 11 to 3. Dinner Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10. Price range: appetizers $6 to $16, entrées $16 to $20, desserts $6.