On a recent assignment to cover the Basque joint La Bodega, my gussied-up date and I were plunked right down in the epicenter of rubbery bagels and faux-European bakeries known as Wallingford. When I called to make reservations, I didn't listen closely to the heavily accented Frenchman purring into the phone. So we wandered around in our tight shoes, peering into the new Frenchie place that was where we assumed La Bodega to be, feeling like overdressed strangers at the wrong party.

La Bodega had, indeed, quietly metamorphosed into Au Bouchon. The French now occupy the northwest corner of Wallingford Center.

I gawked at the pleasing transformation: table linens, curtains, floral arrangements, low lights, and towering cognacs. While warm and cozy on grim winter evenings, come spring and sunshine, this lovely space adjacent to a pleasant little nursery will surely blossom into the ideal French bistro, replete with leggy women tethered to outdoor tables by small, sweater-wearing dogs.

While an attentive busboy chalked up the nightly specials on a board, a debate erupted between him and our waiter, in French, over the English spelling of "mushroom soup du jour," and soon turned philosophic. When our waiter described the mushroom soup ($5) to us with such ardor, I ordered it. Such a nice, velvety, understated mushroom purée, deepened with roasted garlic and rich with goat cheese.

Ample shells cupping scallop ceviche ($11) followed our perfect soup. Bright, clean lemon, lime, and extremely mild peppers graced fresh scallops with restrained, light flavor that let the glory of quality seafood speak for itself. Proper ceviche is not so easy to come by, and this dish paid homage to the Mediterranean influences that have not been entirely eradicated from Au Bouchon's past. Trained in France, half-Spanish chef Christian Potvin incorporates regional Basque cooking as well as Northwest seafood and produce into Au Bouchon's very classic French offerings.

Noted for his celebrated Figaro restaurant on Queen Anne, Au Bouchon owner Philippe Bollache hails from Lyon, "the best place in the world to eat"--hence the appearance of Pork Loin de Lyon ($14), stuffed with sundried tomatoes and goat cheese mousse, and served with apple cider sauce. This regional dish falls prey to that stereotypical fine-dining mania for fussiness, resulting in dried-out-tasting pork loin that paled next to the New York steak in béarnaise sauce ($17): a fine cut of beef, nearly fork-tender, expertly prepared and smartly accompanied by buttery, luscious mashed potatoes and winter vegetables. (I did miss the frites, though, and hope to see them appear in their rightful position--next to my steak--in the future.) For those who want something not infused with cheeses or cream, thin slices of flavorful smoked duck served with marinated pears in a raspberry vinaigrette marries three distinct and complementary tastes in a mouth-party called Smoked Duck Salade ($8).

Every neighborhood should have a French bistro like this one. Children are tolerated in a refreshing, non-condescending way, and service is commendably knowledgeable and consistent, personable without being overly casual. The enormously popular Le Pichet, while downtown, also shines as a neighborhood restaurant in its accessibility. Le Pichet's menu provides for a big blower of a dinner or more modest, everyday options, including affordable wine (how un-American!) and simple, filling fare alongside the likes of opulent cheese platters. I like the French and their sauces and their refined soups, but I also appreciate their bistro approach to an everyday, down-to-earth menu.

Far from concept dining, Au Bouchon is ideal for any neighborhood. It serves espresso and morning pastries (not to mention satisfying pear tarts for dessert); a French spin on eggs for brunch and quiche du jour for lunch; and a well-respected bouillabaisse ($20) for dinner, all without pretense or stuffiness. I hope more restaurateurs follow suit.

Au Bouchon 1815 N 45th St, 547-5791.

Tues-Fri lunch 11:30 am-3:00 pm; Tues-Fri dinner 5-11 pm; Sat-Sun brunch 10:30 am-3:00 pm; closed Mondays.

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