LE PICHET is a clean, well-lighted place, long and narrow, with small, slate-topped tables. The walls are dressed in a skirt of wine-colored oak, and at night, the thick, undulating light of candles paints the whole room in Van Gogh's palette--beige and yellow over amber and burgundy. In the back, there is a small bar, just big enough for a few young intellectuals drinking brandy they probably can't afford to converse about the death of God, the curling smoke from their strong cigarettes reflected in the large mirror hung behind the bartender, who is polishing a thick glass with the hem of his apron. The room is warm with the soft aromas exhaled from the kitchen--oregano and red wine layered with the salty, arid perfume of cured meats.

The whole left wall is lined with two-person tables, which are simply pushed together should you arrive in some sort of multiple form. At 6:00 p.m., with the candles still deferential to the dusk outside and the tables crowded with wine bottles and steaming entrées, you can look all the way down the row, your sight bisecting a dozen conversations, bouncing off the rims of wine glasses to catch the eye of another momentary voyeur. The feeling is crowded and urban and rich, like you are in another city in a nostalgic time; an expatriate in your own town.

Food comes in simple groupings: entrées, mixed plates, and specials, plus an ever-present assortment of cheeses chalked out on the cheese board. The house rightfully prides itself on its pâtés and smoked meats: I had the "Assiette de poisson fumé maison" ($11), or assorted smoked fish, while my business associate had the "Assiette de charcuterie" ($9), a selection of cured meats. Both were excellent as food; outstanding as ritual. Morsels of delicately flavored and arranged meats and pâtés, with plenty of great crusty baguette, provide the perfect backdrop for a bottle of wine, which in turn nurtures conversation. It took us a leisurely hour to get to the entrées.

I am soft for arugula. Its bitter heart distracted me until age 27 or so; now I am lost in its charms. I ordered the "Sardines grillé, salade languedocienne" ($12), which puts the grilled fish alongside an elegant egg-and-arugula salad. I thought it was one of the best things I'd ever had, which was foolish of me, because then I tasted my associate's "Lentils garnis porc fumé" ($13), or stewed lentils with smoked pork chop. Now, I can barely afford the odd rasher of bacon once a month, let alone a whole smoked pork chop. The curse of frugal people, when they dine out, is that they leap from one superlative to another. Hence, this dish floored me, not even so much for its innate, smoky complexity, but for the grace with which those absolutely regal lentils--yes, the lowly bean--offset the salty tenor of the pork. Stewed in a generous, rich stock heady with blood-red wine and a touch of thyme... my God, I cannot go on.

I was too full to try the glazed fig dessert that shone on the table next to me. In fact, I left the restaurant in a vulgar hurry for some damn fiasco or another. Feeling I'd forsaken something, I returned to Le Pichet to investigate its late-night offerings. Now I'm fighting my selfishness to let you know that in addition to their fine dinners, Le Pichet offers a full bar until 2:00 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, supplemented by an excellent "Casse Croête" menu, made up of simple snacks such as dried country sausage ($3.50), chicken liver terrine ($6), and open-faced pâté sandwiches ($5). Wine starts at $4 a glass from an excellent selection, and those candles glow and the tables float and James Joyce is arguing in the corner with Sylvia Beach, and I'm going to be there every night until I'm dead.

Le Pichet

1933 First Ave, 256-1499. Sun, Mon, & Thurs 8 am-midnight; Fri-Sat 8 am-2 am (dinner 5:30 pm-10 pm; "Casse Croôte" available all day). $$

Price Scale (per entrée)

$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-$20; $$$ = $20 and up.