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Best French restaurant: Le Pommier

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It was a dark and stormy night ... seriously. It was raining buckets when we arrived at Le Pommier, Pittsburgh's answer to the French bistro. Le Pommier, French for apple tree, has been a fixture of the South Side for over 20 years. Located in a historic circa-1870 storefront, the restaurant exudes a warmth and richness that sets it apart from nearby businesses.

 

Originally founded by Christine Dauber, ownership has subsequently passed to two longtime employees, executive chef Mark Collins and house manager Jeremy Carlisle. Along with pastry chef and general manager Richard Bjork, the management continues to attract kudos for its quality French cuisine.

 

Once inside, the simple, elegant décor with warm red and yellow walls transported us. We instantly forgot about the ongoing storm and frenetic energy of our South Side surroundings.

 

The wine list is extensive and decidedly non-pretentious. Sometimes choosing a wine is an arduous task for the unlearned, but this list is separated into helpful categories such as: and for dessert..., the many faces of Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and her friends, pinot noir (for those who don't do merlot), and random reds that are rather respectable.

 

Our prelude began with luscious olives and a tasty baguette. We made two choices from the entrée section: flan and carpacce au thon. The flan was an especially appropriate choice for fall, a butternut-squash custard with Gruyere cheese topped with leeks. The combination of such strong flavors still made for a harmonious relationship. The carpacce au thon was an appetizing tuna carpaccio crowned with artichokes, tomatoes and capers. The mer/foret was our plats prîncipaux of the evening: mouth-watering shrimp and scallops atop a crispy risotto cake with a Roquefort-rosemary sauce. Divine.

 

Le Pommier's menu changes every two months, although a few favorites may carry over. Chef Mark Collins uses locally grown fresh produce in his creations, and the menu is reflective of these seasonal ingredients. Collins also grows produce in his home garden including various tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, blackberries and just about every type of herb imaginable. And coincidently, he has an apple tree.

 

Le Pommier offers a prix fixe menu, available Mondays through Fridays, that features four courses for $35 a person and is an excellent primer for the burgeoning French cuisine connoisseur.

 

We asked Collins if he could recommend a vegetarian-friendly item or two. Not only did he recommend the tagine végé, but he prepared it for us. It was an amazing stew of roasted root vegetables, lentils, golden raisins and a tantalizing array of spices. If I had only three letters to describe it, w-o-w would be my choice. Collins explained that given a few days notice, he can customize a menu with vegetarian diners in mind.

 

When we queried our server for dessert recommendations, she suggested several including the crème brulée du soir and the gateau au chocolat. Although the prospect of chocolate layer cake with apricots and raspberries is tempting, we opt for profiteroles solely to sample the homemade hazelnut ice cream. The large pastry puff arrives covered with chocolate-caramel sauce and hazelnuts, and is filled with the most exquisite ice cream imaginable. We have chosen wisely: The dessert was the perfect epilogue to our evening.

 

We left France -- I mean Le Pommier -- feeling joyously satisfied and then stepped out into the dark dampness, where puddles reflected the neon lights of East Carson Street. It was over, we were back in reality, but deep down I knew I would return to this magical place. I would return for the gateau au chocolat. Can you hear me, chocolate cake? On that day, it will be your Waterloo.

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