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At Home on Maple Street 

Sophie and Ollivier Guiot have added a southern French twist to the Italian pies at CIRO'S COTE SUD.

When a man thundered into Ciro's Cote Sud for dinner, riotous after too happy an hour at a bar down Maple Street, his server patiently raised his own voice a few decibels and waited for the man's high to mellow. When a 5-year-old boy fell asleep before dinner arrived, legs wrapped around his father's waist, the rest of the dining room scooped quietly at avocado halves filled with vinaigrette until a server helped the father wrap up both pizza and child to take home. And when I paid my bill with a personal check, leaving it on the little plastic tray decorated with purple basil flowers, the one server on duty waved me out so trustingly that I regretted every check I'd ever bounced.

Your server at Cote Sud inevitably will be either Sophie or Ollivier Guiot, a young, French (sort of) couple who bought the restaurant in 1997 when it was called just Ciro's. Although Sophie's accent hails from Paris and Ollivier's from Toulon further south, neither of them actually grew up in France. The son of a diplomat, Ollivier attended high school and college in New Orleans; Sophie was raised in West Africa. They landed here together later on, I gleaned from conversation, because the France that united them just didn't feel like their own.

They didn't plan to become restaurateurs, but through a chain of events as they were making a home in New Orleans, Ciro's found a home with them. While interesting enough, the Guiot's story only warrants this much attention because they are the reason that their 36-seat restaurant crept so close to my heart. Although the kitchen staff is proficient in most tasks, I don't feel passionate about any of Cote Sud's food. It was more the darling adobe facade, the dandelion yellow tablecloths with white pineapple print and the flimsy photo of the Eiffel Tower Scotch-taped randomly to the tulip-red bathroom wall that got to me. And there's something else there, a general feel-good disposition that someone I dined with called feng shui. I think it's more like the Guiot's collective, slightly vagabondish, good nature streaming through the place.

From my perspective sitting under the dining room's sparkling constellations of Christmas lights, the Guiot's seemed to possess an unusual talent for knowing exactly what to do and say next. When Ollivier saw the winy Roquefort cream sauce from a bowl of mussels dribbling down my chin, his offhand response was, "I guess I should bring you more bread." (I was skeptical about the blue cheese-mussels combination, by the way, and was proven deliciously wrong.) When I couldn't decide on a wine before my first course, Sophie cocked her head in thought and asked whether a few thimbles of chilled, cognac-touched pineau des Charentes wouldn't be lovely. Of course it was.

During the restaurant's first life, it amassed a loyal following for pizzas baked in a stone-bottomed oven. The Guiot's had other plans when they painted the restaurant Provencal yellow, stenciled bunches of purple grapes around the trim and added "Cote Sud" to the name (referring to the southern coast of France) and French onion soup to the menu. But since Ciro's longtime customers kept coming, the moment hasn't yet presented itself to cease serving the pizzas from their spinning, wooden table stands.

Nor, I predict, will it ever. While on my first try the crust was rubbery and opaque like the dough I regularly kill at home, the second was firm and chewy like a thin crust should be in order to stand up to its topping, and toasty with gray brick marks underneath. Ollivier's namesake pie was an ambitious but minimalist preparation, ideal for the thin crust: garlicky basil pesto and persillade sauce (like a pesto with parsley) formed the base for a few purple olives planted like violets, leaves pulled like rose petals from artichoke hearts, pinches of chevre and a scattering of mozzarella. On another one, red sauce had the concentrated twang of sun-dried tomatoes, and meatballs were deconstructed into salty bits.

As with the pizza crust, just a tweak would have vastly improved other menu choices. Mussels were a touch shrivelly. Salad involving a lovely sherry vinaigrette and warm, chevre toast points was bothered by iceberg lettuce and wintery tomatoes. Linguine tossed with shrimp, zucchini, roasted garlic and olive oil needed seasoning and help with the limp squash's cooking time. And a cardboard-blah crust spoiled an upside-down tart tatin with candied caramel edges and soft, cinnamon-brown apples.

Other items, if not exceptional, were quite good. Like a patchy but agreeable composition of tenderly sliced duck breast, gingery apricot and prune stew, warm peaches and buttery potatoes smashed in their red skins. Cotton ball-sized profiteroles were puffed with ice-cold vanilla cream and doused with intensely dark chocolate sauce.

I do expect to find something I can't live without on Cote Sud's menu in the future, whether it's truly irresistible or because I need an excuse to keep going. The adorable, unusually welcoming and reasonably priced restaurant suits most any occasion, and I plan to come up with plenty.

click to enlarge The darling adobe fa&231;ade is but one of the aesthetic charms to CIRO'S COTE SUD that accentuates its feel-good disposition. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • The darling adobe fa&231;ade is but one of the aesthetic charms to CIRO'S COTE SUD that accentuates its feel-good disposition.


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