Those lazy Saturdays when you wake up at 12 p.m. call for one kind of cuisine: Brunch. You text your pals, and they respond with something like, “Duh. IHOP? Waffle House? I just don’t want to get out of my sweats.”
At Rue Cler, brunch is anything but the meal you eat when the grunge from last night is still sticking to your unwashed garb. Brunch is the bitter salade frisée with pork-flavored vinaigrette and rich egg yolks. It’s the steak frites served with a sauce so magical, you book a ticket to Paris before leaving the restaurant. It’s the sugar-dusted beignets.
Tucked in the heart of downtown Durham, Rue Cler occupies a large dining room that is pleasantly cozy: wood-panelled walls, skyline paintings and floor-to-ceiling windows. Its menu, mostly written in French, is the sole feature that hints at the restaurant’s Frenchness — that, and the restaurant name.
I had heard mixed reviews of Rue Cler before going. Some pretentious folks call it “inauthentic.” I beg to disagree: Rue Cler isn’t Parisian haute cuisine, but it’s also not trying to shove “French” in your face with Mona Lisa portraits. The wooden tables and red-cushioned chairs are more characteristic of a fine dining restaurant tucked in Asheville than a chic cafe at the corner of Les Champs-Elysées. The food itself keeps to its French origins (reasonable portion sizes, rich flavors and paramount ingredients).
After a week of bitterly cold temperatures, I decided French onion soup sounded like the best Saturday brunch option. When I come to European-inspired restaurants in the U.S., I’m always hoping for a little twist on traditional dishes (an example: fried mozzarella balls as a substitute for salad croutons at an Italian spot in Boston). When it comes to Rue Cler’s French onion soup, I was unpleasantly un-surprised: sautéed onions swimming in a burly beef stock, pushed down under the weight of melted Gruyère and bread = boring. It was well-executed, but a dish I could order at Panera.
Fortunately, I also ordered a side salad, or salade verte (green salad). Sure, you know what to expect when it comes to a side salad: Tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers and maybe some sort of cheese other than cheddar, if you’re lucky. Salade verte, a French delicacy that really needs to become integrated into American restaurant cuisine, is bare of toppings. So why am I still raving about this plate of simple greens, simply prepared? The vinaigrette will make your mouth sing (and you sing, if you’re keen on embarrassing your friends in public spaces). I ordered a good 100 of these salads while in France, and the best vinaigrettes always employed the perfect ratio of mustard to vinegar and oil. They made the otherwise bland greens pop.
There are many other reasons to make a trip to Rue Cler. Last week, on the day before Valentine’s Day, mine was the beignets. Sure, you’ve had donut holes before. You’ve ordered every variation of fried dough at the N.C. State Fair. But you haven’t truly experienced the glory of deep-fried bread until you’ve popped one or two Rue Cler beignets into your mouth. Dusted in both granulated and powdered sugar, the beignets feature a honey-crusted exterior and a soft, sweet center. I’ve been disappointed by many beignets in my life — those with fat, greasy bottoms still make me cringe. Rue Cler beignets, on the other hand, are perfectly round. I shouldn’t need to sell you on these beignets anymore. Go. Order a dozen. Order another dozen to go. Mail me some.