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How to Eat a Freedom Fry

Looks like they had it right. The French. About Iraq, that is. Notwithstanding their new President Sarkozy, who seems to have all the rigorous intellectual sophistication of George Bush the Younger (Work harder! Think less! Speak English!), it appears that a culture built upon centuries of deep rumination and political-social-philosophical analysis — as well as a fundamental physical laziness that seems to preclude futile military forays — has earned every drop of told-you-so schadenfreude it cares to dispense in our general direction (Steewpid, steewpid Americans!). Meanwhile, shame is bitter in our mouths. It tastes like overripe mimolette. Thus, we end our boycott, tuck our tails, and slink back to our favorite neighborhood bistros, begging to lick the hand that has heretofore fed us so brilliantly. We'll order our mess of moules marinières and steak frites without qualms: The hordes of pro-war patriots waving jagged Bordeaux bottles have all gone home.

French Bordeaux, by the way, the same wine one West Palm Beach restaurateur defiantly spilled into the gutters of Clematis Street until our pavements ran with blood, is not just respectable again; it's hot. Any schlub can buy futures of the extraordinary 2005 vintage at Costco. (A case of Margaux goes for $724.99, and you'll need to find a friend in Texas or California — they won't ship to Florida). You can't pick up your wine and taste it until 2008, but by then, I'm guessing our relationship with France will be as sunny as a six-week vacation on the Riviera. That would be the vacation the French have given up in favor of the virtues of honest corporate toil and English-language classes.

Anyway, you'll want to ease your way back into the sweaty pleasures of homemade pâté and garlic-soaked snails; an excellent place to renew your Francophilic vows is at Rendez-Vous Bakery and Bistro on Oakland Park Boulevard. This Lauderdale Rendez-Vous is the northern arm of a pair of restaurants that serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner, both owned by Pascal Eimet; the other is in Aventura and bakes fresh breads and pastries for both operations. It won't surprise anybody who's eaten Eimet's simple and reasonably priced bistro classics if the concept takes off and spawns little Rendez-Vouses all over the map. I don't quite know where else we're going to satisfy our early morning cravings for quiche aux oignons or battered brioche French toast or chocolate croissants at these prices.

I won't bore you with sentimental drivel: Rendez-Vous doesn't evoke any fond memories of breakfasts in Quimper, where I once spent a couple of months as a teenager not learning French. What I did learn that summer was how to make out with the boys of Brittany and also how a trip to la plage looked from the back of a moto. I also developed a palate for sour French butter slathered on baguettes that crackled when you split them open. And an appetite for crepes rolled up around butter, sugar, and a few drops of lemon juice, eaten single-handedly. At Rendez-Vous, the butter is American and comes wrapped in gold foil; the bread is warm and satisfying but lacks a classic brittle crust and just-shy-of-sour crumb; the crepes (ham and cheese are $8.50 at lunch and $11.75 at dinner) get lost under suffocating blankets of béchamel. And if the onion soup ($5.50) can't match Julia Child's inebriate version, I don't expect the average customer at RV wants to get soused on cognac and white wine over their bowl of broth at lunchtime (not that I'd mind it much). Otherwise, that's all the complaining you're going to hear from me. The rest is golden.

"Oooh, lucky you!" our waitress rhapsodizes. She has a wooden tray in her arms, and on the tray a bowl of three-dozen mussels emits clouds of onion-scented steam. If RV served nothing but this huge platter of moules marinières ($13.50) and the thin, salty fries that come with it, an awful lot of people wouldn't be any less happy. These moules are smothered in sweet onions in a bath composed of white wine, shallots, parsley, and butter. This fragrant, bottomless bowl is a working girl's dinner. I can't put away more than half of them; the waitress ("Such a wonderful place to work. The food is unbelievable. I've gained five pounds.") insists I take the rest home.

"Boil the broth first," she counsels us. "Then pour it over the mussels so they don't overcook. You won't believe how good they taste the next day." Off she goes to the kitchen, to separate all the elements so I can re-create bliss at home. I'm wondering — when was the last time I met a waitress so greedy for the food she was dishing out? Eees a good sign, no?

But then, I'm considering applying for a job here myself just for the free meals. I like the atmosphere too — the vinyl booths and tile floors, the view of the kitchen behind the old cafeteria-style counter, shelves of bread and the pastry display case: Imagine Denny's gone Bohemian. Between courses, we have front-row seats for a kitchen fire that whoomps out the window between grill and dining room, flame licking up wood paneling. The staff handles this with aplomb — it's out in less than a minute, and then it's back to the sound of slow sizzling and the inane conversation of two gay couples at the table behind us. Evidently, they've met online and are just getting acquainted.

"I adore Harry Potter," one of the guys says. "I've read all seven of the novels."

"Oh, um, right. I think I've heard of that. Wasn't it a movie or something?"

"Uh huh. It's about these kids who're wizards. They go to wizard school. In England."

"Hmmm. Sounds interesting."

I'm rolling my eyes, practically spewing garlic butter. We've eaten a fine saucer of escargots ($8.25) by this time and a revelatory plate of homemade pâté campagnard ($8.75) served with slices of pepper-crusted dried sausage, puckery little cornichons, and heaps of prosciutto. They've arranged the meats on a finely dressed mixed-greens salad; it comes with an endlessly replenished basket of bread. The total effect is so bright and sharp that it's like being shaken awake by a siren. Eimet's pork pâté is deep and fleshy; the pepper and salt of the dried sausage cuts through the pâté's velvet like a well-stropped razor. You unfurl the prosciutto and place it in wisps of pink smoke on slices of buttered bread. The salad is tangy and floral and grassy. And there's enough food here to comfortably serve a crowd. This too is going home for tomorrow's lunch.

Out comes a scrumptious skirt steak ($16.25), tender and meaty, upholstered in a reduced bordelaise sauce the color and texture of melted chocolate. Homey mashed potatoes round out and soften the rich flavors, along with a pile of swiftly sautéed summer squashes. Wrap it up.

We've accumulated a heap of to-go bags. But we're still eyeing the pastry shelves and figure we can stuff down at least one petite royal pastry ($3.55), a composed wedge of chocolate mousse balanced on a buttery crust. It's delicious. Our waitress flounces out with one more bag — stuffed with complimentary croissants.

With regrets, we leave the rest of the menu for another time: the merguez sausage sandwich with harissa, the half rotisserie chicken, sautéed grouper with pesto, croque monsieur, eggs dipped in mushroom sauce. The duck confit salad. The braised lamb shank. The fish soup with rouille. We have a future here of croissants au beurre, apricot tarts, napoleons, and Paris-Brest pastries.

And you know, nothing sweetens a big, fat serving of humble pie like a dollop of hazelnut chantilly cream.

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd

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