The casual style of Bistro Casanis makes prix fixe meals seem comfortable.Has there ever been a Westernized culture so admired and yet so maligned as the French? The reasons are obvious--gorgeous women, free-spirited sexual attitudes, six weeks annual vacation, all that maternity leave. And then there's the food.

The French take eating seriously, as seriously as Americans take--well, what do Americans take seriously? Perhaps baseball? French foodophiles do treat the comings and goings and hits and misses of chefs with the same passion and attention that that Oregonians agonize over what's wrong with the Ducks offense.

Then there's the whole French diet thing--how can the French swallow fois gras, triple-crème cheeses, and crème brûlée with such joie de vivre? Why aren't they les miserables about cholesterol?

Blissfully, the claim that vin rouge cures all evils turns out to be nearly true. Imagine the joy in beret land when all those studies came out proving that drinking a glass or two of red wine a day was better for your longevity than an hour of exercise.

Whatever the explanation, there are few better places to contemplate the French paradox than the lovely Bistro Casanis--a place that makes prix fixe meals seem as comfortable as steak and potatoes. The restaurant is located, amusingly, where a Portland version of Moulin Rouge once exposed the female.

Casanis brings French neighborhood bistro cuisine and atmosphere to the area tucked in between Northwest and the Pearl, and its French fare is more casual than two fancier companions, Zinc and Le Bouchon. Visit Casanis twice and the waiters will remember where you like to sit and what you like to drink ("The rosé from Provence again?"). You'll never feel abandoned or rushed; the pace is ideal. It's quite possible to be in and out in an hour. The portions should leave most diners feeling comfortably sated but not stuffed--and that may be a likely explanation for the lack of obese French.

You're almost required to have a three-course meal--the entree prices (reasonably priced from $16 to $22) include an appetizer and a dessert. There's not a vast number of choices, but the menu offers the kind of dishes you can eat again and again.

Beginning with appetizers, there's an escargot special that's so intensely evocative of France you can almost see the Eiffel Tower. And it sparks an interesting conversation: Can vegetarians eat bugs? If only all such slimy creatures could be so transformed by a pool of garlic-infused butter.

Among the regular appetizers there's also a terrific roasted beet salad with a goat cheese vinaigrette and a simple and excellent smoked salmon aigrelette with a light cream sauce.

As for the entrees, the navarin of lamb ($18), a stew of falling-apart meat with soft button mushrooms and carrot rounds, is dressed in a velvety sauce that tastes both rich and fresh. The steak bordelaise with marrow butter ($21.95), served with lovely creamy potatoes on the side, is nearly insanely delicious. There's a lot of the pairing of light with strong here--as in the golden roast chicken with a foie gras sauce ($16.95).

The menu offers a fish special of the day, and on a recent visit, the flaky, pan-seared cod with peppers, chorizo and picked tomatoes ($18.95) burst from the plate with intense and tangy flavor.

If you don't want a three-course meal or are just interested in a more casual setting, take a table in the front-room bar, stocked with all sorts of exotic alcohol, like the way-too-unknown Lillet and some wonderful rosés, as well as a fine selection of French wines. In the bar, you can order off the regular menu or the bar menu, which features excellent salads such as a cold-poached salmon with asparagus, dressed with a zesty caper-and-anchovy vinaigrette ($7.95).

There's a hearty grilled sausage with crispy frites ($5.75), and other great choices include the mini steak au poivre ($9.95) or mussels Casanis ($7.25). The mussels are soft without being mushy and lap up the earthy broth. From the charcuterie section of the bar menu, try the excellent pâté maison ($5.95) or the prosciutto ($7.25).

For dessert, there are just a few choices--fresh berries with cream being the simplest ($4.95)--while the cool-and-slippery crème caramel ($4.95) oozes sugary goodness. A recent chocolate du jour ($4.95) was a mousse flecked with pistachios, and the only disappointment so far; the mousse was heavier than preferable and the flavor is flat chocolate. For a few dollars more, you can order a cheese plate ($7.25) for your final course--a small selection of divine French cheeses that show off the wonderful world of fromage.

And the espresso, of course, is perfect. Another rumor has it that a double shot after every meal erases calories, fat and carbs alike. But who's worrying?

Bistro Casanis

1639 NW Glisan St., 546-1696

11:30 am-2:30 pm Monday-Friday, 5:30-10 pm Monday-Thursday, 5:30-11 pm Friday and Saturday.

Co-owner Christian Geffrard previously worked at Le Bouchon.

The name Casanis comes from the French liqueur pastis, which originated in Marseilles and is flavored with star and green anise and an infusion of licorice.