At the petite French bistro Loie Fuller’s, it’s not the food that draws big crowds, but rather a (truly) stunning space that easily rivals its cousins on the Left Bank.
Photography by Angel Tucker
Loie Fuller’s1455 Westminster Street, Providence, 273-4375. Open every night but Tuesday; late-night menu offered until midnight. Bar closes at 1 a.m. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Private parking lot. Cuisine French-influenced comfort food. Capacity Thirty-six in the dining room; nine fit at the bar, though twice as many can hover in the vestibule. Vibe Dark and dreamy. If you can’t get romantic here, go join a monastery. Prices Appetizers $4–$14, entrees $14–$20, desserts $3.50–$12. Karen’s picks Duck confit, roasted rack of lamb, warm apple tart and a European draft from the bar. Key Fair Good Very Good Excellent Half-star
I have to give credit to any restaurant that serves an eight-chop rack of lamb, properly cooked and with a side dish (remember those?), for twenty dollars. Not surprisingly, it’s the most popular entree at Loie Fuller’s, which is, not surprisingly, on Providence’s West Side, where culinary bargains pop up with more regularity than anywhere else in the state. The lamb sits alongside several other bistro-style foods, all of which are more refined than the burgers owner Mike Sears has served at his bar, Lili Marlene, for the last six years. Score one for maturation.
Eventually we all trade in our sticky bar stools for the comforts of a full-fledged, sit-down dinner. After all, a ten-hour work day and the sound of creaking bones can make anyone look forward to a slightly more civilized experience. My guess is that Sears came to this revelation later in life. No doubt he had a few more good years by the bar than I.
Last June, Sears converted a boxy beauty shop into an au currant restaurant for Gen Xers, who have long since transitioned from college dining. Named fittingly for the American dancer who gained her renown in Paris (and pronounced Lo for those stubbornly attached to the affable Loo), the restaurant brings a small but stunning European aesthetic to the far end of Westminster. Behind its surreptitious entrance (no banner, no sign, no name) lies a personalized homage to the Art Nouveau tradition. Stained glass, deep woods, painted tile and graceful curves all evoke an early twentieth-century mood. The contemporary mystique is enhanced by lighting so dim that one would swear the air was smoky despite state laws.
Sears knows what pays the bills, and consequently the bar is as ornate as the dining room. It seats only nine, but standing room for twenty more adds to the impression of urban exclusivity—i.e. it’s well worth a leg cramp to see and be seen. Arrive on a Monday night, and you can choose your perch; Saturday evening drinkers often play doorman as they vie for another cocktail.
If you manage to score a table (available to three dozen diners), you’ll be eating under the watchful eye of Kyla Coburn’s murals: romantic renditions of various female staffers from both of Sears’ establishments, who are barely clothed on the wall, minimally so in person once the warm weather hits.
The beer and wine list (twenty-five and thirty options, respectively) is more extensive than the abridged menu, which offers a dozen first courses and seven entrees. Most dishes are modern interpretations of French classics, though Chef Eric Wolf can be inconsistent in his abilities. So enamored am I with the ritualistic process of eating artichokes that Wolf’s version—stuffed with Nicoise olive-tinged cubes of bread in need of seasoning—was still quickly devoured. I could do without the wedge of camembert that comes alongside a duck confit; it’s akin to serving foie gras with a pat of butter. It is still, however, one of the best braised duck legs I’ve had in the state. The tender meat would fall involuntarily from the bone were it not for the restraint imposed by its delicate but intensely flavorful skin.
On the weaker side is a disconcerting boudin blanc oddly paired with a pickled onion and apple mixture. The cold condiments need a heavily seasoned canvas, but the pale, innocuous sausage just doesn’t make the cut. Same goes for a modified raclette dish, which typically consists of melting the Swiss-style cheese over a plate of baby potatoes and cornichons. Wolf stays true to the original, though the cheese isn’t melted tableside (too small a space for such drama) and solidifies all too quickly to enjoy more than the first few bites. Skip the so-called carpet bagger as well, which consists of thick, undercooked sirloin folded over overcooked oysters.
But food isn’t always everything. If the fare occasionally fails, Loie Fuller’s falls back not only on its visual charm, but on the restaurant’s striking distinctiveness that seems to saturate every niche. It’s a destination, a place to grab a corner and vehemently refuse to budge regardless of the Saturday evening eyes that plead their case from the bar. To a certain extent, the food simply serves to prolong the sojourn. But then again, there is the lamb.
In addition to the rack, served with a rustic sweet potato and onion gratin, Wolf puts together a basic but creditable list of main dishes. Scallops, served in a diminutive crock, are covered with earthy mushroom duxelle and soothing bechamel. It’s a homey approach to an ingredient that has lately fallen prey to culinary trends. Pot pie takes a vegetarian bent, a cork-topped vol au vent smothered in creamy root vegetables that might appeal to a herbivore but tasted slightly commercial to me. My favorite dish may be the seasonal arctic char, served simply but maturely with a scrawl of tangy pomegranate molasses and some perfectly roasted brussels sprouts.
Side dishes all have potential but are slightly problematic. The bacon and chestnut stuffing was deliciously smoky but flat-out cold. Apple risotto, a malleable backdrop for nearly any entree, was overcooked; if my eyes weren’t on the dish, I’m not sure I could differentiate grains of rice from cooked fruit. Paired with a salad, however, it might still be the best vegetarian alternative. You can always opt for the $3.50 frites, which won’t surprise but also won’t disappoint.
The dessert list is small, consisting of three sweets and a cheese plate. The milk chocolate pot de creme is an Americanized version of an archetypal French treat: not the deep, intensely dark pudding of years past but a light, Milky Way-like rendition that tickles your sweet tooth rather than shocking it into submission. Even after baking, hazelnut pound cake sustains an oddly aggressive undertone of Bailey’s Irish Cream. Better to opt for the warm apple tart, if only to get to the cinnamon ice cream; the latter is made in house and is more of a thick, spicy custard then an airy ice. Half a dozen dessert wines (not one topping $8 a glass) will buy you time and also the proper mindset to consider the circuitous lines of the Art Nouveau school.
As it turns out, a rather diverse group of people turn into Francophiles during dinner hours. One might imagine a homogenous crowd of doe-eyed, heavily banged nymphs drinking cocktails and holding seductive cigarette holders, but Loie Fuller’s appeal is broad-based. One family, gathering for a fete with kids in tow, presented their forty-something birthday girl with a less-than-romantic towel warmer. Reaction from the adjacent heavy-drinking, bodice-busting table? “No way!—I’ve always wanted one of those! You’re a lucky f***!!” Unexpected perhaps, but, then again, neighborhoods are often formed with the most surprising declarations of support. It looks like Sears has found his, and everyone looking for a room with a view is invited.