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WINNER TAKE GAUL

We never made it to Jim Morrison's grave, but that was because we were determined to find an authentic Parisian bistro during our trip to France several years ago. After wandering for almost an hour in Montmartre--past all of the places that suck up most tourists--we stumbled up a side street and into a tiny, dimly lighted establishment. Its kitchen offered just two choices: a melt-in-your-mouth salmon or succulent chicken, each in a lovely Escoffier-inspired sauce. We tried one of each, as well as two incredible soups, a whole loaf of fresh French bread and a local wine that will never see the shores of this country. When we finally emerged from the place, stuffed, two elegantly dressed "ladies" with blue eye shadow up to here breathed "bonsoir" in voices lower than the Lizard King ever could have hoped for.

The neighborhood surrounding La Coupole isn't quite that colorful, but it certainly has its share of characters. Through the delicate lace curtains that separate the riffraff from the raised-pinky tea sippers, we spotted a purple mohawk, a person who obviously had no home, and a group of gang wannabes.

From the heightened ceiling that gives the place its name ("the cupola") to the brick walls, hardwood floors and smart art, La Coupole smacks of fancy-schmancy, and it seems the ideal setting for a celebratory lunch or romantic dinner. But the restaurant only makes you feel as though you're splurging, because the moderate prices belie the intense preparation that goes into the food. The result is something special indeed: bistro-style, with a heavy undercurrent of good, old-fashioned French cooking lightly sprinkled with nouvelle. It helps that the food is being prepared by a Cordon Bleu-trained chef, Mark Alexander, who came to the four-year-old restaurant in October. Under the watchful eye of owner and Frenchman Pierre Muraz, Alexander quickly made the menu his own, sending out dish after dish of impeccably cooked and attractively arranged cuisine. Lunch, when an entree runs an average of $7, is no less aesthetically pleasing than its pricier dinner counterpart ($13.50 average). A galette (usually a term for a thin, flat cake made of pastry that's stuffed and cut into wedges) of salmon ($7.10) appeared as a flaky salmon fillet folded into a triangle and housing a mixture of green and red peppers, carrots, onions and zucchini, all baked and served atop a shallot-rich cream sauce that somehow managed to be light and luscious at the same time. La fricasse de volaille au cidre ($6.90) featured four slices of chicken breast gently sauteed and served with apple slices and a cream-tinged apple-cider reduction that could inspire you to start speaking flowery French. Both lunch entrees were adorned by slices of chilled beets, julienned carrots and various fresh herbs. An endless supply of warm French bread and a square of sweet butter come with the meal. The waitstaff is just as generous with their attention. In fact, even at the lower-tip lunch, the waiters were on such good behavior that it was easy to quickly forget the office you'd left behind--particularly if you came from an office where everyone was hissing and spitting and calling each other names.

Which is precisely what we were treated to on our dinner visit to La Coupole. Since the Chieftains awaited us at 7:30 p.m., we arrived as the restaurant opened and were witness to the usual polishing of silver and setting of tables, as well as to a shouting match between an obviously errant waitress and a very angry French manager type. Even though they were twenty feet away, their spat was so intrusive that we couldn't hear our waiter reciting the specials. Indignant, he walked over to the pair and asked them to shut up. No such luck--although we liked our waiter better for trying. Even this episode couldn't spoil our excellent meal, however. We started with la soupe a l'oignon gratinee ($4), the classic French onion soup; La Coupole's version consisted of a very mild veal stock filled with sliced onions and French bread and covered with a mixture of provolone and Parmesan. The stock was the only disappointment of the evening; it simply didn't have the flavor necessary to carry off the soup. That wasn't a problem with les escargots de Bourgogne ($6.50), six scrumptiously soft little snails in a killer creamy garlic sauce enhanced with white wine. Just as flavorful were les moules marinieres ($6.50), a deceptively simple dish of green mussels steamed in white wine studded with shallots and parsley. The appetizers were accompanied by French bread, which came in handy for sopping up the liquid from both the mussels and escargots (I could have eaten linoleum in that sauce) and my entree, le pot-au-feu de poisson ($15.50). Traditional pot-au-feu involves the long, slow cooking of meat and vegetables in water; here, a jumble of seafood swam in a white-wine-kissed broth invigorated with shallots and fresh herbs (mostly parsley). The mussels, salmon, shrimp and scallops were imbued with this aromatic essence, and the aioli (a pungent garlic mayonnaise) on the side tied it all together. Equally impressive was le carre d'agneau ($16.50), three exquisitely grilled lamb chops awash in a sauce of lavender, goat cheese and red wine. Lavender, which can vary widely in potency, had been added in just the right amount to get noticed but not demand all the attention. The goat cheese had been thinned out to add more body than flavor, but still was a welcome presence in what tasted like a Burgundy-splashed reduction. The tender chops came with a side of potato gratine, a generous pile of soft spud slices layered with Gruyere and buttered breadcrumbs.

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