RATING |

The cafe is in crisis in its French homeland, where an average of two are now closing each day. According to a recent article in the New York Times, changing tastes (less drinking and eating out), a new smoking ban, and the global financial meltdown are responsible for bringing that storied world of zinc bars, Beaujolais and pâté to its knees.

Philadelphia, thankfully, has taken on the mantle of keeping that old French joie de bistro alive. Or so it has seemed in the last year, as numerous variations on the Gallic theme mushroomed around town, ranging from an oyster bar (Coquette) to a BYO-remix (Cochon) to a star-chef, luxe-hotel version (10 Arts) to a trendy parkside mega-bistro from Stephen Starr (Parc).

It was no bandwagon impulse, though, when Peter Woolsey left Starr's company (he worked at both Striped Bass and Washington Square) to build his own intimate homage to vintage France in Queen Village, Bistrot La Minette. Woolsey came by his repertoire of authentic French cooking firsthand, studying pastry at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, working at the legendary Paris restaurant Lucas Carton. He even married a Frenchwoman, Peggy, whose parents own a bakery near Dijon.

Woolsey also began this project well before the others appeared. Who knew it would take 17 months to transform an abandoned building into the bistro(t) of his dreams? It certainly exudes the warmth of a handmade project, from the meticulously painted art nouveau exterior to antique furniture used as a bar and server's station to the assorted Burgundian flea market knickknacks and the big farm table - used for fixed-price "French family meals" in the back room - that was hewn from old wooden beams salvaged from the space.

Little details - ceramic pitchers of affordable house wine, chilled bottles of tap water, a hanging chalkboard still marked with Peggy's French lessons for the staff - give it a genuine personality.

But it is Woolsey's authentic French menu that had me most excited, including some rarely seen treats like mustard-braised rabbit, homemade blood sausage, red-wine-poached oeuf en meurette, and even fresh baguettes.

My enthusiasm was slightly tempered over the course of my meals with some reminders that Woolsey, 31, is yet a very young chef, still refining his ideas and recipes. It is nice to have house-baked bread, for example, but La Minette's baguettes are not yet distinguished enough (the crust too thin, the crumb too finely uniform) to quite justify the effort. There were other speed bumps, too, especially among the entrees, which overall felt a shade pricey for bistro cooking.

But there were also plenty of bright spots to overcome these hesitations, especially in the menu's first half. A complimentary amuse-bouche is always a thoughtful start, and few morsels make me as happy as a good gougère, a little pastry puff filled with warm cheese-scented air. At my second meal, a silky dollop of salmon rillettes was equally welcoming.

We then dove into some beautifully rendered appetizers. The succulent sweetness of seared scallops played against the tangy bitterness of Belgian endive braised in orange juice. The Alsatian-style flammenküche, a crisp flatbread topped with deeply caramelized onions, chewy bacon lardons, and nutmeg-scented streaks of creme fraiche, is hands down one of the better upscale "pizzas" in town.

There were numerous other highlights. The elegant salmon tartare brought a pedestal of contrasts - the soft mince of fish layered beneath a crown of firm lentils - over a juicy aurora of blood-orange vinaigrette. The grilled sardines, set into silver-skinned stripes between sweet roasted peppers beneath a lemon vinaigrette, embodied the fresh (yet not fishy) taste of the Mediterranean coast.

The garlic soup, lush with sweet roasted allium, could have dialed in more of a zesty pop. The house-made country pâté had all the right flavors (bacon-wrapped terrine of herb-scented, livery pork), but the texture was too unyieldingly firm.

I had no quibbles, though, with the elegant simplicity of the endive salad, a generous chop of crunchy fresh leaves, walnuts, and creamy Roquefort crumbles tossed with an earthy walnut-oil dressing. Roasted fennel bulbs gave a nice anise accent to the richly creamed wild mushrooms over puff pastry bouchée à la reine. And poached-egg lovers should not miss the oeuf en meurette. Served over toast in a buttery red-wine sauce studded with lardons, caramelized pearl onions, and mushrooms, one bite took me back to my own Burgundy days.

The reverie wasn't quite as seamless when it came to the main courses. The trout amandine was one classic perfectly rendered, its sweet Idaho fillets crisply seared and glazed in lemony brown butter with toasted almonds. A tall tarte, whose fluted crust was filled with goat cheese and leeks, was a pleasant enough option for vegetarians.

But a simple grilled entrecôte (rib eye) was a letdown, too skimpy for $29 (the priciest entree), and with a soupy potato gratin. The braised lamb shank was a bit dry and underseasoned, its flageolet beans undercooked. And two of Woolsey's most intriguing entrees were disappointments.

The clove-scented boudin noir wrapped in puff pastry was admirably homemade, but this big blood-sausage pig in a blanket was missing enough of a sauce to keep it moist. The striped bass ballotine, a steamed roulade of salmon mousse wrapped in bass fillets and an outer layer of cabbage, was like a cooking-school assignment gone awry. Rolled far too thick, the center had the undercooked texture of a chalky salmon pudding. A treacly date puree of sauce "Rabelaisien" only made matters worse.

For a more successful bistro fix, I was thrilled with the rabbit, deboned and neatly rolled inside a saddle package, then tenderly braised with a mustard cream, over homemade tagliatelle noodles. The duck a l'orange, likewise, was a nice update to the famous dish, the seared breast (as opposed to a roasted whole bird) splashed with a sweet-tart citrus sauce over earthy slices of Jerusalem artichokes.

Woolsey's career has partially focused on pastry, and he delivers some straightforward but well-wrought desserts. A rich house-churned caramel ice cream gilded the lightly caramelized apples and buttery brisée crust of his tarte Tatin. The delicate crisp of sugar-glazed puff pastry made the perfect mille-feuille sandwich for ripe berries and whipped cream enriched with crème anglaise. Freshly fried beignets were perfectly light orbs of nutmeg-scented dough rolled in warm sugar. The pot de creme made with Michel Cluizel chocolate was an irresistible cup of dark-cocoa silk, the ultimate chocolate pudding.

Timeless as they are, desserts like these may not be enough to save the cafe-bistro from its slow demise in France. But Philadelphians, at least for now, are happy to lap them up.

Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Cooper's Brick Oven Wine Bar in Manayunk. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.