Rouget

Posted: June 08, 2008

The color looked different when Brian Held saw it in a book. It reminded him of the warm red of a rouget, the coveted Mediterranean rockfish that inspired the name of his restaurant near downtown Newtown.

When translated into paint on the dining room walls of this 1800 farmhouse, though, that Proven├žal blush suddenly looked more like a sponge bath of Pepto-Bismol pink. It's a jarringly powder-puff hue, especially for an ambitious kitchen trying to distinguish itself from the building's recent history as a teahouse and a salon named Sparkles. In fact, my dinner guests, who live just three blocks away, had no idea it had become a serious restaurant a year ago.

But it's too late to fret about the unfortunate paint job. And frankly, it became quickly irrelevant once I tasted Held's sophisticated French cooking - because Rouget has become a worthy dining destination indeed. Over the course of three meals ranging from stuffed quails to seared tuna with braised beef cheeks, house-made charcuterie, and freshly churned blueberry sorbet, Rouget's kitchen turned out some the best food I've eaten in Bucks County in the last decade.

The heady aroma of truffles that lingers in the air is enough to snap your senses to attention when you step into the dining room, which is an otherwise elegant 60-seat space with romantic pillow-strewn bay-window nooks (like table 13), and an airy, glassed-in porch overlooking a long green lawn. The walls are hung with black-and-white photos of famous chefs, from Paul Bocuse to Fernand Point, Freddy Girardet, Charlie Trotter and Alice Waters.

Held, 39, a Culinary Institute of America grad, has a ways to go before he reaches that pantheon. But it was clear from my first bite of truffle-laced mushroom soup, poured tableside from a carafe around a mound of fresh morels, snappy leeks, and the crispy puff of a toasted brioche round, that he means to pay those great ones homage.

Few young cooks hold on to and evolve the canon of culinary school classics with quite as much fervor as Held, who recasts them with a light but artful touch. His beef "a la mode" is a rarely seen paragon of throwback bistro goodness. The thick slice of French pot roast made from flatiron steak is braised to a melting softness, dabbed with horseradish, scattered with asparagus tips, and set beside a creamy gratin stack of shaved root vegetables.

If you're lucky enough to try the chef's weekday tasting menu, which at $55 for eight courses is one of the region's best fine-dining values, Held will send out some impressive charcuterie - a creamy shred of duck rillettes, coarse-ground country pate, and even a galantine of poached guinea hen puree studded with pistachios and dried fruit.

His quail en crepinette, a boned game bird rolled with herbs around itself into a sort of sausage, was among the most succulent quails I've ever had. It came with an adorable twice-baked fingerling potato on the side, and honey-poached turnips that had the crunch and tartness of a crisp apple.

Held, who spent eight years running an ambitious strip-mall BYOB called Juliana Rose in Richboro, where he says tastes were more conservative, has reveled in the culinary freedoms of this upscale "downtown" setting. I have no idea how he manages to serve four-course prix-fixe menus of this quality for $34.95 (let alone the bigger chef's tasting), but he doesn't hold the luxuries back. And the pleasant staff manages to present it with a formal grace and attitude that avoids being stuffy.

During my visits, coral-edged pinwheels of fresh morel mushrooms lavished many plates, including a perfect risotto that sat beneath a huge sweet scallop intricately scored and crisped like a sea waffle. Tender nuggets of moist lobster and asparagus spears were scattered in a sweet spring fricassee beneath a rose-colored fan of squab breast. And seared pads of creamy foie gras came layered with French toast in a double-deck napoleon topped with fresh cherries stewed in vanilla and brandy.

Held also indulges a penchant for some more daring, second-cut meats - at least during the weekdays. There are sweetbreads atop risotto. Sublimely tender braised pork belly is given an ethereal outer crisp with an exotic dusting of toasted Madras curry. Braised beef cheeks, as soft as the most tender brisket, made a stunning companion to seared loin of ruby rare tuna, with a rich burgundy reduction that emphasized the meatiness of them both.

That tuna gets a more conservative pairing - over a simple herbed risotto - for the weekend meals, when the menu goes a la carte, and Held takes fewer risks (the light-bite lunch menu is even less inspired). Even so, our Friday supper brought a squab breast with currant sauce, a well-crisped fillet of king salmon with zippy mustard emulsion, and a classic filet mignon topped with Roquefort-melted leeks that did not disappoint.

Only a few dishes, in fact, were less than stellar - a huge crab cake with too much seafood mousse filler; a seared calves' liver that was nicely rare but too thick to enjoy; and a grouper that was slightly overcooked one time and paired with mashed potatoes the next, which would have been fine on its own, but was just too heavy in the middle of an eight-course tasting.

In fact, that tasting brought so much food, I volunteered to forfeit the pineapple sorbet course - though only because I'd already savored that frozen confection at lunch. And it was wonderful, as was the vivid blueberry sorbet and the roasted-banana ice cream that came beside the molten dark chocolate cake. The limoncello cheesecake with biscotti crust, though, may have been even better. And the custard-soaked white chocolate bread pudding better yet.

Meals like these can make even that "rouget" paint job almost palette-able.


Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Pearl near Rittenhouse Square. Contact him

at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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