LARGO — This fall's gorgeous new cookbooks signal a shifting zeitgeist in the food world. On the horizon: hearty, country Italian and unfussy, homey French. Doubtless, Julie & Julia nudged our thoughts back toward luscious hollandaise sauces and gleaming tartes Tatin. At least for now, we're done with kooky fusion or mad-scientist molecular gastronomy. We want to be nurtured the good old-fashioned way, with butter.
Looks like the sentiment is echoed by local restaurateurs: Two new French brasseries are on the horizon for downtown St. Petersburg, one in the Ovation condo tower and one the reinvention of the Table.
It got me thinking about longtime outposts of French cuisine in these parts. How are they doing? What are they doing?
Café Largo, a fixture since 1986, is aging beautifully.
Owner and chef Dominique Christini sees these ebbs and flows in French food's popularity (remember the "freedom fries" and people boycotting French wines back in 2003?) as just the inevitable swing of the pendulum.
"Techniques and culinary basics come from the French kitchen," he says. "In any culinary school, all of the working terms are French."
A holdover from his own tough-love classical culinary training, he's a stickler for the details.
"Thirty-five years later that kick in the butt still stings. Just about the only thing I don't make myself at Café Largo is the ice cubes."
He makes a pain de campagne that is one of the two best breads in the Tampa Bay area (the other at Pane Rustica in Tampa). A rustic round with dense crumb and intensely crunchy crust, it's made of 30 percent organic whole wheat flour and requires two days of punch-downs and risings. Great with just a dab of butter, it's even better with the house assortment of pates ($10.50), one a velvety foie gras and cognac spread, one a more rustic chicken liver and pork version and a third a super traditional poached chicken galantine. The garnish, of course, is a passel of cute cornichons and spirited stone-ground mustard.
Choices aren't vast (six appetizers, seven entrees), Christini having edited somewhat to reflect the current economy (all entrees under $30). But each one gets the same careful treatment: An included house salad is napped with a model Dijon vinaigrette, with a handful of house-roasted sweet peppers, a cube of roasted beet in a sweet-tangy Bagnol vinegar and a wedge of tomato marinated separately with a sprinkle of herbs de Provence. Then each entree plate gets these side veggies: a buttery tangle of crisp-tender haricots verts, another pile of thick matchstick roasted carrots and a single turned potato. (A turned potato is an insanely labor-intensive technique whereby an innocent spud is whittled into a seven-sided football.) Portions are not huge and each dish is plated with care. It's pretty food, and rigorously classical — but you don't have to know the tarragon-flecked bearnaise sauce on the rosy slices of beef tenderloin ($28.25) or the glace de viande blonde topping the luscious fan of duck breast ($26.75) are textbook. They're just really tasty.
Café Largo's dining room is intimate and cozy, with the loose accretion-of-stuff decor that is the purview of the veteran restaurant. Some might say that the restaurant's longevity is explained by the Grand Marnier souffle ($9.75), a big pouffy cloud of boozy egg white invariably accompanied by sighs and "oohs" of pleasure. I think the restaurant's staying power also has something to do with Christini's vivacious personality, easily seen during his Monday night cooking classes and channeled perfectly by his son, Sebastien, 26, who mans the front of the house. Father and son seem to understand that long after Mastering the Art of French Cooking has fallen off the bestseller list again, gracious hospitality will keep people coming back to this sweet little place in Largo.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.