Ciro's Côté Sud
7918 Maple St., 866-9551; www.cotesudrestaurant.com
Moderate (cash or check only)
Seductive setting, great pizza, delivery for bistro dishes
Understated seasoning in many of the French dishes
A mid-range charmer for date night and family dinner alike
The crowd at Ciro's Côté Sud initially had me mystified. This is a tiny, alluring nook of a French bistro where the lamplight is always dim and at least half the tables are set for couples. It seems ready-made for date night, so why is it also such a popular place for families to dine with their young children? I've never visited without seeing a few youngsters amid all the couples and double dates.
Looking over the menu with my own date, we wondered if the kids at the next table would actually take an interest in escargot and if their parents really intended to buy them steak frites or rack of lamb for dinner. It all made sense, however, as we watched their dishes arrive: duck confit salad for mom, roasted salmon for dad and a cheese pizza served on a wooden, spinning tabletop dolly for the kids. The parents got a slice or two themselves, and the kids got some exposure to classic French cuisine.
Pizza is part of the program at Ciro's Côté Sud, and it's a fine specimen with an attractively bubbled crust and light-char evidence of the kitchen's brick oven. It and the deeply satisfying lasagna are holdovers from the restaurant's past life as Ciro's Pizza & Spaghetti House. The rest of the dishes form a hit parade of French country cooking in line with the restaurant's second incarnation.
Chef and owner Ollivier Guiot is a native of Toulon, a port city on the coast of southern France (or "côté sud"). He's lived in New Orleans since he was a teen, and his mother, Jacqueline Guiot, is a longtime member of the dining room staff at Café Degas. Ollivier worked at Ciro's making pizza during his college years and later bought the place when its owner retired.
Guiot began renovating the building with a Provençal look to match the new menu he had in mind. But Ciro's regulars still called with pizza orders. Guiot decided to keep pizza on the menu temporarily, just to ensure some cash flow during the transition. That was 13 years ago, and the pizza is still there.
The rest of the cooking is generally solid, though never spectacular, which is about in line with its modest pricing. A little more seasoning here and less time in the oven there would go a long way to improving things. But as it stands, the menu's strength is its French-style comfort food, including a bowl of coq au vin in deep, winy-gravy glory, and the duck breast under a memorable sauce of bourbon, apricots and peaches.
The ability to get a well-crafted pizza next to onion soup and bacon-wrapped Cornish hen isn't the only thing that sets Ciro's Côté Sud apart. Guiot kept the old Ciro's pizza delivery service, and he gamely boxes up anything on the menu. So the filet mignon glazed with maitre d' butter, oysters gratinee and even steamed mussels all go out to addresses within the restaurant's university neighborhood delivery range. Call it date night by delivery, with or without the kids.