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Published: Thursday, 2/15/2007

Restaurant review: Rouge Bistro ****

Luscious, delectable, and mouth-watering are words most often associated with food. As it happens, they also serve as apt descriptions for the physical look and feel of Rouge Bistro, executive chef John Wesley's newest and most ambitious culinary endeavor.

Beyond the striking antique fountain at the entrance of the swank Toledo restaurant, patrons are greeted by a panorama that's nothing short of breathtaking - much larger than any of the neighborhood bistros of Paris it seeks to emulate, but pleasing to the eye and appetite all the same.

Under the cherry-red ceiling lamps is a dazzling view. Drink in poster-plastered French kiosks, bouquets of flowers and globed lights, black and white photos of Paris in all its moods, Picasso-like nude sketches on the ceilings, large mirrors like those found in bistros along leafy Boulevard St. Germain, and a backdrop of swirling conversations on crowded nights that are as heady as a good Bordeaux and bubbly as champagne.

Add to that the sounds of a jazz combo performing next to a sleek grand piano in the open-air lounge, chefs wearing tall French toques - and most especially, an array of essentially American dishes with a decided French inflection.

Among the choices are duck liver pate, stuffed baby eggplant, poached Norwegian salmon, short ribs of beef, rack of lamb, and other dishes draped in or prepared with savory sauces, garlic, black truffles, aged cheeses, capers, olives, andouille sausage, demi-glaces, chanterelle mushrooms, butter, champagne, and fresh lemon.

Given the elegance of the dcor, expectations over the pricey, strictly a la carte food are understandably high. In that regard, Rouge Bistro provided both ecstasy and frustration during our visits - glorious dishes that satisfied us for their superb taste and the uncommon pairings of sauces and ingredients, but some entrees that fell short because of undercooking or overcooking, as well as service that tended to be distracted or rushed.

Wesley made his mark in Toledo at Maumee Wines, then J.D. Wesley's Bistro on Monroe Street for nine years, then as executive chef for Mancy's restaurants, earning a reputation as one of Toledo's finest chefs. Now he is teamed with businessmen Steve Turner and Steve Velker, who have transformed the former Renaissance Place Caf & Wine Bar into a stunning eatery that is suddenly the place to be.

Appetizers ran from duck liver pate with cheeses, crackers, and fresh fruit ($9) and Scottish smoked salmon with capers and horseradish cream ($9.50), to succulent jumbo sea scallops with a nice, char-grilled burnish, sauteed in white wine lemon cream sauce ($11), and excellent Cajun crab cakes ($12).

During our lunch visits, we hop-scotched all over the place: crawfish tails in a spicy but not overpowering Creole sauce with andouille sausage over angel hair pasta ($14); incredibly tender slow-cooked beef short ribs ($13); chicken soup with thick, German-style noodles and memorable tomato soup enlivened by blue cheese, both $4.50 a bowl; a French omelet ($8) folded around white cheddar and gruyere cheeses with sides of fruit, English muffin, and potato wedges; three-cheese macaroni gratine ($8) bursting with flavor, and even a prime beef cheeseburger ($9) served medium rather than medium-rare as requested, though still juicy.

Among our dinner entrees, we encountered a couple of other missteps from the kitchen, as with an otherwise excellent princess chicken ($16) that was on the dry side under a champagne veloute sauce. New York strip steak, a 16-ounce lollapalooza with black truffle, excellent mushroom sauce, tender French fries, and a price to match ($29), came out blood red rather than medium rare and had to be returned for further cooking.

On the other hand, the $6 Rouge salad with palm and artichoke hearts, baby greens, and apple slices was sensational, along with a beautiful walleye in lobster sauce ($21) and angel hair pasta studded with shrimp and sea scallops in a white wine and garlic butter sauce ($24). John Wesley loyalists will be happy to find his signature desserts, sac du bon bon ($9) and bananas Foster ($6), on the menu.

As for the service, it was a little bumpy on two occasions: one, when our waiter appeared under the gun with too many tables to look after at one time, and another when the server forgot to deliver water or bread, and brought the main dish midway through the soup course. Blips, to be sure, as Rouge Bistro continues its mission to wow the famished crowds.

Contact Bill of Fare at fare@theblade.com



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