Cheap Eats - Quelle bargain

High-quality French fare for less at Violette

Fields of sunflowers, red poppies and decaying aqueducts bask in the sun. All this can be seen while traveling along the Loire River valley. Aaah, to be in the French countryside.

It's a far cry from the strip malls, gas stations and Waffle Houses along Clairmont Avenue near I-85. But tucked behind a stand of trees, nearly invisible to the Sam's Club members who zoom along the busy road, Violette stands undisturbed by the hustle and bustle.

It's not often that you find a French restaurant discussed in a column dedicated to affordable fare. With its complicated preparation and expensive ingredients, it just isn't easy to produce French cuisine cheaply. Or so we've been fooled.

Stepping through the front door of Violette, things slow down a bit. The blue stucco walls, stained glass and bright airy atmosphere of the space washes away the stress from the street and puts you in a mood for bread, cheese and a bit of wine.

Outdoor seating is available on a deck that traverses the length of the building. It's bright and cheerful, shaded by trees, but the humidity keeps most people inside where there is plenty of seating.

The lunch menu received immediate praise from the female foodies that dined with me. Having studied and traveled in France, they both were excited by the selections on the menu, a hodgepodge of culinary influences spanning the country from Burgundy to Alsace.

The appetizers included assorted salads ($4.95), quiche ($4.95) and country-style paté ($3.95). All sounded appealing, but we decided on the pork rillette ($4.95). Unfortunately, the former French students in us were disappointed when the server proudly corrected our proper French pronunciation with an American "rilet" (with a hard "L" instead of the smooth "Y" sound).

A favorite charcuterie of mine, rillettes can be made from salmon, rabbit or several other varieties of meat, but pork is most common. The pulverized pork, served in a blue ramekin, was topped with sliced red onions, horseradish and fresh flakes of parsley. A garnish of green leaf lettuce was accompanied by toasted bread.

The ramekin was filled quite high and there was plenty of meat for the three of us. The meat, combined with fat and slowly cooked, is often a smelly concoction, but the meat served here was less pungent and not too fatty. Despite our ravenous bunch, we still had plenty left over when the entrees arrived.

The plate of coq au vin ($6.95) was filled to capacity. Three whole chicken thighs and a side of summer vegetables were separated by mashed potatoes. This was an amazing amount of food for the price. The chicken thighs were all a nice size and the meat easily fell away from the bone. The sauce was a bit thin but still contained a heady mix of red wine, chicken stock, garlic, thyme, mushrooms and a hint of bacon. The potatoes were thick and creamy and combined well with the bordering sauce.

The vegetables appeared to be ratatouille, but with eggplant missing, it may have been intended simply as a light mix of sauteed vegetables. The large chunks of zucchini, squash, onions and tomatoes were simmered in olive oil and garlic and possessed quite a bit of flavor — the tomato bursting with juice, the onions sweet, but it was heavy on the garlic.

Another chicken dish, the bouchée a la reine ($7.95) also turned out well. A puff pastry was filled with a mixture of chicken in a creamy mushroom sauce. This time, the chicken is cut into strips but traces of cartilage and fat still were present in some of the morsels. The sauce was rich and tasted of thyme and basil. Again, the side of vegetables rounded out the dish.

I chose the crepe of the day ($6.95) since it was a bit exotic: curried chicken. Most people think of crepes as a dessert item, but they often are served with meat fillings. The crepe was almost indistinguishable under the same mushroom sauce found on the bouchée and unfortunately, the curry also suffered the same problem. The mild curry flavor was heavy with turmeric and contained large chunks of celery. It would have done well in the thin crepe shell if it wasn't for the sauce that obliterated any chances for discerning such peculiarity in flavor. A side of rice was flavored with a hint of saffron and small diced carrots and was a nice compliment to the summer vegetable side of the day.

Amazingly, nothing on the lunch menu costs more than $8, and the dinner menu only raises the prices a fraction on many items. You can go all out and spend $16.95 on steak au poivre at dinner, but it is easy to get out of here with a small bill, something unheard of at most French restaurants. The ambiance lends itself to a casual lunch or a simple, romantic affair. Either way, it's a little bit of France and a whole lot of food that won't break the bank.??