If your notion of a proper French restaurant is fancy, pricey and not the sort of place for a lot of slurping and reaching across the table, then dinner at C'est La Vie Bistro may be an eye-opener. That's especially true if your visit involves this new Uptown restaurant's mussels a l'Auvergnate.
The menu at C'est La Vie Bistro is short, and the turf it covers is very familiar. But dining here is still a refreshing experience, thanks to its unvarnished approach to French bistro cooking, which sets it in the realm of hearty comfort food at reasonable prices. The filet mignon is the only dish more than $20, and few lunch specials top $10. The restaurant is BYOB and there currently is no corkage fee.
The chef is Sebastien Baudin, a native of Annecy, France, a small city not far from Lyon. He worked the circuit of French restaurants in New Orleans before he opened C'est La Vie in December along a block that is rapidly becoming a diverse restaurant row.
This addition is not easy to notice between its higher-profile neighbors. Located in a lightly renovated storefront, the atmosphere isn't very alluring, with neither the romantic charm nor the bustling vibe you might expect from a bistro outing. You may have to generate your own conviviality around the table, but with its food, the kitchen really steps up.
There is not a trace of trendiness on the menu, which is a straightforward roster of bistro set pieces. For instance, as hipper restaurants all across the land are pickling everything, the only pickles here are cornichons on the neat but generous charcuterie boards.
The specials might bring a drum fillet with lobster sauce, though the bigger payoff comes from dishes like daube Provençale, with falling-apart chunks of beef in thick, herb-strewn, citrus-touched gravy, or cassoulet with its duck leg nestled among sausage. The trim, modest steak frites looks like the shy, sensible younger brother to the many more glamorous versions served around town, though it was cooked perfectly to order. The disappointing fries tasted straight from the freezer, however. Escargot are exceptionally tender and flavorful, proving to be more than just the usual vehicle for the maitre d' butter — though they serve that role pretty well too. Pork tenderloin is wrapped in creamy Dijon sauce beside ratatouille and the tarte tartin has a velvety texture like apple pudding.
Then there are those mussels. Set in rich, tangy, blue cheese sauce dashed with the sweet mussel liquor, the dish causes table manners to fall to the wayside, invites slurping spoons to dive deep and makes elbows collide. When a waitress found four of us going after the remnants as if it were a pot of fondue, she confided that people sometimes ask her to pour the leftovers into go-cups for the road. I completely understand.