Le hangout

Bienvenue to the Frenchiest place in town.

MOST RESTAURANTS TAKE several months to establish a regular clientele; it appears to have taken Le Pichet about two weeks. "Have you heard about this place?" a friend gasped into my phone. "It's already my favorite in Seattle." Others were cagier. "I think I can do something about your daughter's rash," purred my pediatrician. "Have you decided who you'll be taking with you to Le Pichet?" Le Pichet

1933 First, 256-1499 coffee and pastries 8-11:30am daily; lunch Thu-Mon 11:30am-2pm; dinner Thu-Mon 5:30-10pm MC, V; full bar All I knew about the place was that it opened in August in the ex-Kaleenka space (God rest its soul) at First and Virginia—the endeavor of a chef from Campagne and a frontwoman from the Ruins. Sounded promising. Still, I was not prepared for what met me when I dropped in. From a strictly atmospheric perspective, the place distills the essence of a French caf頢etter than any place I've seen this side of the Atlantic. All in front and along one side, dark wood tables crowd tile floors; the other wall features a noble zinc bar dotted with Ricard ashtrays and lined with bottles of Calvados and Armagnac. Ah, oui! Given that these two walls are about 10 feet apart—remember how skinny Kaleenka was?—the folks bellying up to the bar are practically on the diners' laps, which of a crowded Friday night feels pretty exquisitely Parisian. The twinkling glow of candlelight glancing off dull moutarde walls completes the picture, the only wanting element being old guys in berets sucking Gauloises at the bar. Instead, you have young guys with fashionable haircuts and young women in fringed suede jackets sucking Gauloises at the bar, looking for all the world like ads Philip Morris would like to be running. (Smoke-a-phobes, take heed.) When the menus come, you discover that the food is as simple and streamlined as the setting. If you've arrived after 5:30 you'll get the dinner list: a smattering of pat鳬 cheeses, cured meats, smoked fishes, salads, and four or five entr饳. Many of those same plats appear on the all-day and the lunch menu as well, along with a handful of tartines (open-faced sandwiches) and sandwiches en baguettes. Mornings you can drop in for a pain au chocolate or croissant (from Eastlake's extraordinary Le Fournil bakery) with a big creamy bowl of cafe au lait. The Le Pichet people, as you're beginning to gather, are busy. The place is open practically all the time (including till 2am weekends for booze and noshes), with the aggravating exception of lunch or dinner Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I guess even they need a weekend. This was co-owner/ host Joanne Herron's design; in this era of big-corporation Seattle restaurants, she wanted to open the sort of place she'd visited on travels to France: intimate, drop-in, and open all the time. Sharing her vision was former Campagne chef James Drohman; together they found the space, designed a menu, and staffed up with a fleet of terrifically professional waiters. AND THEN THEY began to cook. Any time day or night a body might order the chicken liver terrine ($6), and well should. It arrives as a smooth, sweet slab alongside two mustards and a fistful of briny cornichons. The baguette already lying half-killed in the center of your table—where'd all that creamy butter go?—makes a great foil for the chicken liver spread. You can also order the gratin Lyonnais ($7), or French onion soup, on any menu. It arrives in a broad shallow bowl with a crown of robust, slightly sour country bread topped with Gruy貥. Not overwhelmingly rich like so many of its ilk, Drohman's is sweet and markedly light, balancing and earning its rich toppings. Smoked salmon ($7), which you can order for lunch or dinner, arrives resplendent in its coral translucence, dusted faintly with pepper. Beside it lies a little heap of endive coated in Roquefort and scattered simply with walnuts. The soul of simplicity, this dish directs one's attention to the excellence of its parts, particularly the house-smoked fish. A curly endive salad ($6) with crunchy green beans, crostini, and two big creamy chunks of goat cheese in a red wine and bacon vinaigrette was glorious and alluringly oiled. A marinated vegetable salad ($9) arrived as a sunburst of carrots, beets, beans, cucumbers, radishes, and tomatoes—Market-fresh and tart from their vinaigrette bath. A sprinkling of walnuts was the only flourish, and just enough. Chef Drohman's affinity for showcasing fresh ingredients through the simplest of embellishments is clear, very welcome, and oh, so very French. Take, as one example, the ham tartine ($5), available on the all-day menu. It just doesn't get much simpler than a slice of ham on a piece of bread, which admittedly sounds just north of forgettable. But make it robust whole wheat country bread (from Ballard's Tall Grass Bakery) and air-cured country ham, throw in a light glaze of Dijon and a few cornichons for good measure, and you've got not just a sandwich but the French national pastime, achieved here with a sure hand. Dinner entrees continue along the same uncomplicated line. I had to try the moules frites ($13), a dish currently so ascendant whole restaurants in London and New York are beginning to devote themselves to it. Here the mussels arrive in a potent pool of beer with leeks and bacon, a sweet, aggressive counterpoint to the perfectly saut饤 little fellas. Your fries, basic and greaseless, arrive in a separate cup. If you fancy it, order your poulet forestier ($30 for two) the minute you walk in the door; the chicken with mushrooms is roasted to order and takes an hour. It's worth it. The skin is buttery-golden and crusted with sea salt, the flesh moist and succulent. The sauce beneath the bird, pocked with mushrooms and pearl onions and enriched with wine, tasted slightly too rich and slighty too briny for the tender meat, particularly with no compensating starch on the plate. (Frites arrive, again, under separate cover.) I also took issue with a daily special of duck breast in a lobster-mushroom ragout ($17). This sauce was grand, as was a crispy potato galette served with it, but the duck was much too chewy. Better was a special of tenderest halibut cheeks over pearl onions and white beans in a sauce deep with sage ($15). This fish was perfect, the sauce happily complementary. Delectable. You'll want to finish with dessert, particularly if the blackboard boasts chocolate mousse ($5), served as a big chocolate schmear on the plate with a dollop of whipped cream and a lacy cookie; pear tart ($5), in which the fruit has been soaking in red wine and is served in slices over a nutty crust; or Lyons-style fritters ($5), astonishing beignet-like wonders lolling in grape sauce (sacre bleu!). Then, idly chewing or sipping the last of your wine, you'll want to look out the window. There on this fashionable block beneath the fading leaves of the grand old trees you'll see the faces of New Seattle walking purposefully by: Men who look like Beck and women who look like Dido, expectant that fame and destiny will soon converge upon them, eager to find some place, any place, worthy of their style and savoir faire. They have arrived.   BACK TO THE FOOD SECTION food@seattleweekly.com

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