Cooking classical French food is not for the faint of heart. It is a regimented cuisine honed over centuries and strictly codified in books like Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire (646 pages) and Larousse Gastronomique (1,360 pages!). An aspiring classical French chef must work his way through the mother sauces, a raft of difficult vocabulary and even more difficult techniques, all while enduring the pecking order of a French kitchen. It is about studying history and mastering fundamentals; it is not about fusion mashups and shooting from the hip.
And increasingly, it's about dispelling misconceptions. Classical French cuisine has fallen out of favor, more and more absent from the local lineup. There are casual French bistros and brasseries, but precious few places in which to enjoy traditional French "fine dining." Christopher Poix, 27, aims to change that.
Martin and Beulah Jackson sold their La Cachette to the young chef last summer. Most recently from a stint at Cote d'Azur in Naples, Fla., he cut his chops working with Alain Ducasse in Monaco and at what is now the Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France. Looking to own a restaurant in the United States, he fell in love with the four intimate dining rooms that make up the restaurant space, launching it in October as L'Auberge des Artistes.
Downtown Clearwater has a reputation for being particularly tough for restaurants, and a current streetscaping project makes a nearby stretch of Cleveland impenetrable until February — a tricky environment in which to debut. Whereas La Cachette had a "reservations only, no walk-ins" policy, L'Auberge des Artistes strongly recommends reservations but is happy to accommodate the impulsive. Still, it reads like a special-occasion restaurant, the formal, snazzily attired staff and enormous chandeliers from the Belleview Biltmore making it seem like the set of a Merchant Ivory film.
The prices corroborate. In this economic climate, $17 appetizers and $12 desserts are, for most of us, a special splurge. The question, of course, is whether the quality of the food merits such prices. In large measure, yes.
Still in its infancy, the restaurant menu is short and focused, which could be problematic for the gastronomically timid (or the vegetarian). For appetizers, seafood and foie gras dominate, with a sumptuously plush house-cured gravlax ($16), garnished with lumps of crab and a couple quenelles of lemon cream, and an equally lovely, but untraditional, coquilles St. Jacques ($17). Poix's version of the latter features a trio of perfectly seared sea scallops garnished with paper-thin discs of fried potato in which leaves of Italian parsley have been embedded like stained glass. These sit atop a tangle of sauteed julienned vegetables and a pool of creamy champagne sauce dotted with caviar. Not a huge dish, but rich.
In fact, this may be the chief misconception for Poix to dispel: "Fancy French food is fattening." Yes, there is butter and there is cream, but classical French fare is about moderation, about reasonable portions and careful balance: At L'Auberge, a chateaubriand for two ($70) brings a thick cut of tenderloin, sliced tableside, paired with a generous hillock of sauteed wild mushrooms, elegantly piped mousseline potatoes against which lengths of baby carrot and asparagus tips are laid decoratively; then the whole thing gets a little ramekin of tarragony sauce bearnaise. I reiterate, rich but not huge, the meat tender and rosy.
Smallish portions allow you to entertain the notion of dessert, again a short, focused list of classics. Chocolate souffle ($12, allow 20 minutes) brings an "ahhh"-inspiring lofty dome, light and dense at once, served with a classic creme anglaise, while an individual tarte tatin ($10) seemed bogged down by too much crust (a more traditional wedge of a upside-down caramelized apple tart might yield a better crust-to-apple ratio). I'm also hoping the restaurant revisits its wine list — at present it is a somewhat random list of overexposed wines, many not suiting the food particularly well (our Rosenblum Cellars 2007 zin, $31, was too much bumbling, brambly fruit for Poix's menu).
The young chef certainly has the rigor and deference necessary to turn out the classics with aplomb. The key will be to find an audience avid enough to keep downtown Clearwater bustling at night and, more importantly, unblinking in the face of a bill that some may find tres cher.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. She dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.