French Without Fuss 

Racine's comfort foods honor tradition without pretension.

The double storefront is presided over by a long bar, the focal point for a lively scene as the evening progresses. The dining areas on either side are relatively small and plain, but the booths are warm and inviting, particularly on a cool fall evening.

If you've spent much time in France, you know how familiar the menus become, often varying only with the regional specialties of the chef or owner. You won't find any surprises at Racine either, but the modest offerings are classic and sufficient. The wine list is modest too but offers a few interesting and affordable bottles.

The hors d'oeuvres ($6-$18) range from ubiquitous pommes frites (served with aioli, that heady garlic emulsion) to the inevitable terrine of foie gras. We passed these up, along with coquilles St. Jacques and escargots, for a bowl of mussels, about two dozen, in a subtle wine-garlic sauce. Sometimes mussels can leave a slightly bitter aftertaste, but these were pleasant in the complementary sauce.

We skipped the soup offerings — classic onion, carrot and lobster bisque — for one of my favorite salads among the three offered, frisee au lardon. Perhaps French cuisine is best at finding elements which perfectly blend with or complement another ingredient. The slightly bitter frisee greens seem a natural foil for bacon, a lightly cooked egg and warm vinaigrette. Not a great culinary execution but a very satisfying one.

The focal points of the main courses ($18-$30) are not very different from those of most restaurants around town — chicken, lamb, beef, veal and seafood — but the treatments and the accompaniments are very French. It's rare to find veal sweetbreads on menus around here — the French like organ meats much more than we do — and I indulged myself in this subtle delicacy, combined with mushrooms in a Madeira cream sauce. The preparation did not set a new standard, but it was competent and good. We also chose cassoulet, the hardy concoction of beans, sausage, pork, duck confit and more. At Racine the presentation is untraditional. Rather than en casserole, an intricately carved duck leg quarter sat atop a very good white bean base. Not a problem, though an essential component of the cassoulet is its crusty topping. We were puzzled by the very rare duck. I expect duck breast to be rare, but we were somewhat put off by the rareness of the smoked leg, perhaps the result of a hasty smoking job.

Desserts are made on the premises and vary from day to day. Of course, you can usually get a crŠme br–lée or chocolate mousse, but we opted for a poached pear in crŠme anglaise, a fitting conclusion to a fall dinner.

Service was in the attentive French style by the veteran Monsieur Brulon, who also served as maitre d'/server at Morgan's. Racine is a quiet haven for a casual dinner. It is without "wow!" qualities, but it's pleasant and refreshing when you want a taste of something French. S

Racine ($$$$)
304 N. Robinson St.
Dinner daily: 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m.

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