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Incredible, affordable French

When I go to a fancy, French restaurant, I expect to pay a lot of money. It's part of the whole experience: Exquisite food, first-rate service, hushed atmosphere, and a bill that makes me flinch.

So, I was taken aback when my guest and I received a relatively modest tab at Le Coq au Vin. Our dinner, including two appetizers and two entrees, plus dessert -- came down to just $52.74, including taxes. And we could have gotten off cheaper if we had ordered half-portions of entrees, which are half-priced, plus $2.

In spite of the manageable bill, it still was an incredible dinner. We started off with a traditional onion soup, gratinee au cide ($5). It was, hands down, the most exceptional onion soup we've ever experienced. Sweetened with apple cider, cream and gruyere cheese, it had a bit of a nutty flavor.

We also sampled a gorgeous vegetable pastry, feuilette de legumes ($5.75), a phyllo-dough affair, embedded with toasted sesame seeds, and baked with a filling of finely hopped vegetables, cheddar cheese, tarragon and basil. The whole effect was light, crispy and delicious.

Our dinners also were enticing, particularly le grouper bronze aux dix epices ($16). This was a beautiful fillet encrusted with toasted pecans and spices, then bronzed in a cast-iron skillet and bathed in citrus beurre blanc. My guest had a black angus steak ($18) that surpassed all expectations; it was a primal experience. Center-cut for tenderness and cooked to medium perfection, there was a touch of blush to the meat, served with a potent dollop of creamy peppercorn sauce. On the side, buttery caviar potatoes were the perfect complement to both of our dinners, crowned with puffs of sour cream and dots of caviar.

Afterward, we immersed ourselves in Grand Marnier soufflé ($5). It was the picture of grace, rising high over the dish and glazed golden brown. Drenched with liqueur it was pure heaven, enhanced by lemony undertones.

Service was professional, but not quite as polished as we had come to expect based on previous visits. Yet our waitress seemed sincere in her desire to be thorough.

Le Coq au Vin is a bit of an enigma. It's oddly located on a stretch of Orange Avenue that includes convenience stores and used car lots. But its saving grace is that it consistently serves some of the best country French cuisine in Orlando, if not all of Florida.

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