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French bliss 

Vin Rouge is more like the 9th arrondissement than Ninth Street

Vin Rouge head chef Matthew Kelly makes it so you don't have to go beyond Durham for a "Tour de France."

Photo by Derek Anderson

Vin Rouge head chef Matthew Kelly makes it so you don't have to go beyond Durham for a "Tour de France."

So what have you been up to this last month? Basketball, turkey with trimmings, elbowing your way through the local mall? Or have you perhaps been holding your breath, waiting for your next link in the chef's picks Food Chain?

In our last installment, Chef William D'Auvray of Fins was about to reveal his pick for best meal in the Triangle.

"If I could afford the calories," D'Auvray confesses, "I'd probably go a lot more often to ... Vin Rouge. Yeah, I'd go see Matt at Vin Rouge. Clams, mussels, braised pork, the cassoulet is killer. He's got a lot of passion for that heavy, heavy food that most people forgot about in culinary school or just didn't want to do anymore. But he's done a lot of research on it, he's eaten all over, he's really concerned with authenticity."

Authentic it is. Dutifully fulfilling my assignment to eat every meal recommended to me, last Sunday I drove over to RDU, got patted down by a hunky FTA guard, hopped the shuttle to JFK and spent seven hours jamming on my MP3 player before landing at Charles De Gaulle, whereupon I stumbled about yelling "taxi, taxi, s'il vous plait!" until an incense-clouded Citroën squealed up and deposited me unceremoniously in the Place des Vosges.

Oh, wait. No, instead I took the Durham Freeway to Ninth Street and pulled up a stool at the bar.

But it could have been Paris for all I knew. The bistro aura is thick at Vin Rouge—dim lighting, Euro tunes, wide-plank oiled-wood bar, blood-red paint with black-framed art, wine list stocked with Bordeaux and Burgundy.

click to enlarge Les moules (mussels, in the foreground) and le cassoulet, served with Les Bournais, Montlouis Sur Loire by Chidaine and Desvignes, Cote Du Py by Morgon - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON
  • Photo by Derek Anderson
  • Les moules (mussels, in the foreground) and le cassoulet, served with Les Bournais, Montlouis Sur Loire by Chidaine and Desvignes, Cote Du Py by Morgon

Ooh la la, un steak frites pour moi, is my first thought. (My husband's is "Mmm. Me. Steak," remarkably similar in translation.) But this series is about stepping out of your comfort zone and eating like a chef for a night. D'accord. As directed, I ordered les moules (mussels) and le cassoulet (baked stew of white beans with a surfeit of meats—boudin blanc, slab bacon, pork confit—rendered intoxicatingly fragrant by a bit of tomato paste, a healthy dose of wine, and the requisite oily bay leaf). The combination of appetizer and entrée was perfect: first sea, then earth; light, then dark; simple, then complex; refined, then rustic. I was not surprised; count on the precise palate of William D'Auvray to recommend such a coupling.

The story of Vin Rouge is a minor legend among area restaurant folk. The concept was bold and inviting: a true Parisian bistro at the neighborhood intersection of Hillsborough and Ninth. (Chéri, let's stroll to dinner, shall we?) But the food could not keep up with the promise. At its nadir, Vin Rouge brought in Matthew Kelly, graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (the Harvard of cooking schools) and veteran of the storied Inn at Little Washington (Virginia), the four-star Fearrington House, and Glenwood Grill (full disclosure: he's also a veteran of Fins).

Since his arrival, Vin Rouge has nearly doubled its revenue—good news for Kelly, who is now a partner, and good news for his regulars. "We make money, we do something with it, work it back [in]," Kelly says. "I just spent $8,000 on cast-iron ware. It's both authentic and utilitarian." A wise purchase: It's both authentic and utilitarian. My mussels, for example, were served in a substantial cast-iron ovoid. The top half pops off for the empties, and there's a little mesh cage to hold the mussels back, creating a clever recess in front for the creamy garlic sauce—perfect for sopping up with a baguette even after you've savored the last remnant of shellfish.

The restaurant has been so popular some have wanted to clone it. "We've had people offer us money to open up a Vin Rouge in an 8,000-square-foot place; no, we can't do this. It changes the feel," says Kelly.

After culinary school, Kelly and his wife took a grand tour of France's fertile crescent of bistros. "I ate at about 48 different restaurants in six days. I felt like a moulard duck, the one they make fois gras from." He learned a few things from the French, and not just how to make a roux. "There's not a 'best'—it's what you like. When I went over there, my expectations were crazy high. [Paris] is like any large city; there's really good baguette, there's really crap baguette. It's like, are you kidding me? I could have gotten that anywhere here. Even when I go to D.C. or New York, I go to restaurants where I'm like, man, I wish I were in Durham right now. I wouldn't be dropping 110 Euros on just a bistro meal."

And though he dined at legendary spots like Joël Robuchon's and Alain Ducasse's Aux Lyonnais, Kelly was constantly drawn to the small neighborhood bistro, usually with one extremely round matron running the kitchen.

One night, "this server, his name was Paschal, said 'Come to my restaurant. I work for this older lady. You need to go there—she cooks from the heart.' I went there. Chalkboard menu, sautéed mushrooms first course (you do that here and people are like, what?). Cat in the corner. It was great. You could just hear the butter sizzling in the pan. [Everything was] well seasoned in every direction—from acid, salt, pepper, the body of it. That was our favorite meal."

He takes a moment to explain the hierarchy of French kitchens, from the haute cuisine to the rustic. "I haven't worked in any true French kitchen. I've worked in French brigade styles, where you have your saucier, your entremetier, your rôtisseur, your pâtissier, in two kitchens like that, but those are really expensive to do. In France in a Michelin three-star restaurant, you have 50 cooks cooking for 50 people. The Inn at Little Washington, you have 300 people with 12 cooks." At Vin Rouge they have three or four cooks for 150 seatings—just like some of the best French bistros, the small family-run establishments.

Kelly does keep an eye on restaurants stateside. He'll run over to Magnolia Grill during a shift and grab an appetizer or two, and since he lives in Raleigh, he occasionally eats in the area. His favorite new restaurant, he says, is J. Betski's in Raleigh's Seaboard Station, serving German/Polish fare. But the one he really loves, the one he'll travel for, the one he wants to recommend to us? Qu'est-ce que c'est?

It might surprise you.

"There's a place in Chapel Hill I like," says Kelly. "I'm just excited whenever I get a chance to go there...."


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