Cafe Campagne

86 Pine St (Post Alley, Pike Place Market), 728-2800. Lunch Mon-Fri 11 am-5 pm; dinner Sun-Thurs 5-10 pm (Fri-Sat 5:30-11 pm); brunch Sat-Sun 8 am-4 pm.

There are certain restaurants that I can never return to because of bad context: a fight with an ex, maybe, or an awful date, or just hard times and strange cravings I'd rather forget. Then there are the restaurants that can withstand uncomfortable memories and sour moods--where the food is consistently good, and just being in the room is soothing, no matter how different things were when I ate there last.

For me, Cafe Campagne, the French American bistro next to the Inn at the Market (and below Campagne, the Cafe's upscale sibling), is the place I depend on for that kind of solace, especially when I want to eat by myself. The person I am when I go to Cafe Campagne--a polite, quiet girl who eats leisurely French dinners and is quite content to go to bed early after finishing dessert--is a person I wish I could be more often.

It's pleasant inside, in that bring-your-parents kind of way--soft yellow lights, blonde-wood banquettes, framed vintage prints on the walls, polite waitstaff. The menu is southern French comfort food with, of course, nods to seasonal Northwest ingredients. I can hunker down at the counter with a glass of wine and a month-old magazine and dig in: moules marinière ($11), an excellent cassoulet ($19, and with all the proper meats--lamb, pork, duck, sausage), homemade pork and liver paté ($9), roasted chicken with sage noodles ($17), steak frites ($18). This is food that sustains me when I walk home on cold, windy evenings, food that helps keep anxiety at bay.

On a recent irritable night, my pan-sautéed trout ($15) with plain steamed potatoes and a robust almond-lemon-brown-butter sauce did more to calm my frazzled nerves than the Homeland Security Act ever will. The boneless trout was fresh and flavorful, glistening with a practically illegal amount of butter, flecked with minced herbs and almond slivers. The almonds were perfumed with lemon juice, which gave some brightness and dimension to the luxuriousness of the butter, making each sliver a gorgeous hit of nutty citrus.

Crispy duck confit ($15) is served in a small cast-iron skillet with fried thyme potatoes, the darkened duck's skin an impressive crackly armor for deliciously tender leg meat, rosy and softly salty. Like the trout, it's luxurious without being overwhelming. Such details are discreet here, casual and not showy, like the chicken wings braised with oil-cured olives and white wine ($10), or the duck-liver toasts that accompany one of the salads, or the intense red wine and foie gras reduction sauce served with the oeufs en Meurette at brunch ($11). Even a simple dessert of orange and grapefruit segments ($7) is elegantly and intelligently elevated: marinated in cold white wine and fresh mint, then finished with a spoonful of unsweetened whipped cream, which slowly dissolves, swirling about and creating a light cream bath for the wine-and-mint-infused fruit.

Cafe Campagne's brunch is what I wish I could make for myself on Sunday mornings--brasserie classics I fantasize about, like baked eggs with stewed flageolet beans, mushrooms, and tarragon, served with a crusty baguette ($11); croque-madame (Parisian ham and Gruyère with a fried egg on bread, $11); or a rolled omelette filled with herbs and chèvre, served with fruit sausage.

In the same way that I wish there were a croque-madame street vendor right outside my apartment building, I also wish I lived above a small boîte that serves steak frites at all hours. On a particularly distressing night last week, when I should have been watching CNN but just couldn't bear to, I hid out at Cafe Campagne and ordered steak frites ($18). Blasts of sharp Roquefort gave the modest, nothing-fancy cut of meat depth and bravado; accompanying sautéed escarole provided a pleasing balance. I decided that pommes frites here are much better at brunch than they are at dinner, then felt ridiculous for comparing frites on a night when so many more important things had gone awry.

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