In Chester, new life for a treasured restaurant with L&E

Restaurant du Village closed for good last summer, sending those who loved it into the slough of despond. It was one of those rare places that invariably delivered a faultless experience, and when a friend once asked, years ago, for a romantic place he could take his girlfriend, there was really only one choice between New Haven and Providence.

Du Village's food was always good, and its French provincial décor, updated with colorful Sol Lewitt drawings, made it a subtly sophisticated destination - tucked into one of the prettiest spots in Chester.

The happy news is that Restaurant L & E and French 75 Bar, which have effortlessly slipped into du Village's dining room and bar, seem to be, at least after one visit, upholding the location's promise.

The décor remains largely intact. However, the menu, or menus I should say, have changed. Restaurant L & E has a well-thought-out selection of small plates of seafood, meats, and salads, where everything ranges from just under $10 to $16.50. If small plates (think tapas) aren't your thing, you can order from French Bar 75's menu of more substantial dishes, including items like hamburgers and moules frites.

The restaurant menu in particular offered so many compelling dishes that winnowing the selection was tough. (This is where the small plate formula works like a dream.) Choices included arugula with apple-smoked bacon, chicken livers, and poached egg ($9.50); bay scallops with roasted cauliflower and red wine pancetta vinaigrette ($15); and, for game lovers, roast loin of venison with parsnips and sweet and sour cherry sauce.

Fortunately, with prices so reasonable (comparatively speaking), two can easily order four or five dishes, split a bottle of wine, and save room for a dessert. For under $150.

Our meal began with batons of cheesy garlic bread, which arrived along with a big dry martini and a peppery Cotes de Roussillon red pulled from the comprehensive wine list.

From the French Bar 75 menu we chose textbook-perfect fried oysters ($12.50) served in their shells, perched on a blanket of richly seasoned "sweet, spicy and smoky Remoulade." The oysters had a great, brittle, crisp coating and retained their sweet succulence.

Our server thoughtfully arranged our dishes into three courses.

The oysters were accompanied by a superb salad of rare (and lean) slices of Muscovy duck breast accompanied by sliced pears and beets and served with a tart reduction garnished with mesclun, bits of citrus and dried cherries ($14.50).

One doesn't frequently run into monkfish on the region's menus, and that's a shame given its great texture and rich flavor. At Restaurant L & E, monkfish cheeks are seared and served with a sauce of tomato, Jerusalem artichokes, and bits of lobster. The fish pairs perfectly with tiny lardons of bacon and the artful assembly - whimsical without being pretentious - was almost too pretty to demolish ($11).

Along with the monkfish came the one daily special, poussin stuffed with thyme and lemon and served with puréed celery root ($14). Half a tiny chicken was perfectly roasted, plump and tender, served in a delicious sauce garnished with a handful of sparkling pomegranate seeds.

Restaurant L & E serves an estimable beef daube, a dish too often dry and flavorless but here pretty much perfect. A small portion of beef shoulder had been long-braised in red wine and was served with tasty "truffled" mashed potatoes (I didn't detect any hint of truffle) in a sauce fortified with beef marrow. Aptly, a section of bone accompanied the beef, complete with spoon for fishing out the rich marrow. It was $14.50.

One might balk at getting a little more than one serving for $10 to $15, but a meal comprised of several plates of food this good makes for an enjoyable, even enlightening, evening. The meal unfolded at a leisurely pace, and as the room filled up, my memories of du Village faded under the influence of the new team's sure footing.

The bar and restaurant share a dessert menu. On the night of our visit, choices included chocolate pot de crème, hazelnut brittle and cream soda ice cream float, and gingerbread ice cream sundae. Desserts are $9.50.

I can't imagine anything being more enjoyable, however, than our warm slice of banana bread (here in the guise of French toast) with a scoop of superb maple walnut ice cream and glazed with a delicious bitter caramel sauce.

Marketing pros might complain about the restaurant's long-winded title. But this prolixity shouldn't turn off its clients since food is the point. I'll go back there in a heartbeat, based on the promise of one meal. And wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to that friend who once sought a romantic getaway.

RESTAURANT L&E / FRENCH 75 BAR

59 Main St., Chester
(860) 526-5301
www.restaurantfrench75bar.com

Cuisine: American and "continental."

Atmosphere: A tiny, cozy front bar leads to a larger but still intimate dining room with a dozen or so tables. The overall effect is of a chic country French bistro.

Prices: Main courses at the bar, and small plates at the restaurant, range largely from $10 to $15. There is a good wine list.

Reservations: Recommended.

Service: Very good.

Credit cards: All majors.

Hours: Hours: Dinner only, from 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. A "Supper" menu of substantial first and main courses is served on Sundays from 2 to 7 p.m. The bar opens one hour before meals are served. The restaurant and bar are closed Mondays.

Handicapped access: Yes, through front door. Call ahead for assistance.

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