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CAFE DU JOUR

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A blustery night seemed the perfect reason to duck inside Café du Jour and see what lurked behind the steamed-up windows. The place has the feel of a neighborhood bistro -- a narrow space that fronts busy Carson Street and opens onto a back patio. There's ceiling fans, old-style light fixtures, local art displayed, a deli-counter-type open kitchen, and just in case you didn't know where you were: One wall is plastered with over-sized black-and-white images of Pittsburgh and its sports heroes. Roberto Clemente peered over my shoulder all night.

After making quick work of the bread (served with a saucer of olive oil and balsamic vinegar), we opted for the soup du jour -- a puree of sweet potato topped with walnuts and cilantro. A nice hearty pottage for a cold autumn evening, the soup had been seasoned with sweet spices (a little cinnamon or nutmeg), but contained just enough pepper for a pleasant bite.

For starters, we chose another warm item -- soft meaty portobello mushrooms that had been stuffed with goat cheese and topped with red pepper spread (and a generous sprinkling of fresh rosemary leaves), and served with small slivers of toasted baguette. Before it was warm, it was piping hot; I foolishly burnt my tongue while rushing for the oozy melted cheese that was extra savory with the melded flavors of sweet peppers and woodsy mushrooms.

A cold, damp night calls for something filling and Old Country-ish, so I chose the stuffed pork chop. This was a large boneless pork chop, bisected and filled with diced, crisp apples and mint, and topped with a tart fruit sauce. The slightly sour apples were a pleasing complement to the sweeter pork; while the fruit sauce was tasty and pretty (a vivid pinkish red), it gave the dish just too much fruitiness. The rosemary roasted potatoes were a trifle dry, but the accompanying vegetable -- zucchini tossed in garlic -- still had some crunch, which I much prefer to over-cooked sogginess.

My companion pondered trying one of the two hearty-sounding vegetarian entrees -- a herb-baked polenta or the sinful-sounding eggplant roll (stuffed with sun-dried tomato, fresh mozzarella and basil with a walnut pesto). Ultimately, though, he had the salmon baked in parchment paper with lemon, dill and butter. This large portion of salmon had cooked perfectly in its paper envelope, the various flavors infusing the flaky meat.

Our meal finished, we sat waiting for the table to be cleared and for our check. The staff was distracted; all four of them were clustered around a bottle and liqueur glasses. It's a bit odd to be having that work-is-over drink when there are customers still seated and take-away orders to be filled, I thought. Ah, but now one chef was approaching our table, bottle and two fresh glasses in hand. A complimentary aperitif would certainly mitigate any grudging thoughts I might be entertaining.

The joke was on me. This was no booze, and these guys were still hard at work. We were offered glasses of balsamic vinegar, which the chef excitedly told us had been hand-delivered from Italy that very day. "Just taste it," he begged.

"I'd be delighted," I replied, thinking there was some absurd sort of sophistication afoot when one drinks vinegar as if it were the finest liqueur. I sniffed, I sipped, I swirled, I swallowed. It was wonderful and delicious -- dark, rich, deeply flavored. It was surely balsamic vinegar, and yet it was entirely palatable and, indeed, enjoyable. It warmed in the chest, and I regretted that there was just a little bit left to drink. I thanked the chef for providing such a surprising end to a pleasant meal. * * *

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