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Côté Sud

It's a rare and beautiful thing to find a dining destination that's as well suited to a romantic dinner for two as it is to group giggles with a small posse of good buddies. Côté Sud is one such place. As the name suggests, the jovial owner, Raymond Arbelbide and ex-Savoy chef Eric Lanvert bring the culinary traditions of their roots in the regions of Southern France to this spirited Castro establishment. The all-organic menu offers dishes ranging from traditional French-country fare ("like Grand-Maman used to make", my waiter informs me) to more inventive preparations.

Our Boeuf Bourguignon, part of the former category, is an old classic for a reason, and Lanvert does that time-tested dish real justice. The monkfish in red wine sauce - Lotte au Vin Rouge - on the more adventurous end of the spectrum, met with moderate approval but lacked a bit of punch.

The abundance of rich and savory dishes at Côté Sud will appeal to those with a palette for heavier foods. The Soupe du Jour for example, a creamy butternut squash, had all the weight of a bisque but had a pleasant flavor nonetheless. Our appetizer was a big highlight: If you like mussels, you will die for this plateful of buttery mollusks as big as your tongue that melts the second they touch it. The highly anticipated French desserts were hit-or-miss. The real winner was the Poire Pochée: steeped in warm flavors of vanilla and cinnamon and bathed in a sweet red wine sauce, it left a great taste in our mouths.

The perception of quality is heightened still when you consider the price tag: the special prix-fixe menu of the day ran us a very digestible $35 for 3 well-presented courses and two glasses of wine. In addition to good chow, the service gets a big A+ for being friendly and unpretentious. The beret-wearing waiters enthusiastically respond in their thick accents to any and all inquiries about the cuisine, the restaurant and the culture that inspires them. The place fills up quickly, but the servers deftly handle a crowd, keeping wine glasses filled (from a list of 180 fine selections!) and the crusty baguettes coming.

The place is truly charming, giving the feel of a stylish home in Provence. The restaurant consists of the single dining room, plus the spacious, covered balcony that overlooks the buzz of 18th Street. The elegant, loft-like space is painted a cheery yellow and blue, with tables bedecked in crisp white tablecloths and vaulted rafters colored a provincial red. All that detracts is the glowing, faux-marble bar, which seems as out of place as the dance music that comes pumping from the speakers around 9:00 pm. This is no place for barflies, but those in search of a friendly dinner with a French accent are in for a real treat.