Since I started this job in 2007, I've reviewed nine French restaurants and four Frenchish restaurants. That's out of several hundred reviews. Last week, seven of the World's 50 Best Restaurants Awards, voted on each year by more than 800 food and wine professionals from around the world, were French. But here in the Tampa Bay area, French food is rare.
I lament this because some of my all-time favorite dishes are French brasserie staples: the luminous caramelized apples of an upside-down tarte tatin; the Pernod- and saffron-tinged broth of a seafood bouillabaisse; the luxurious drama that a tarragon-flecked bearnaise brings to hearty steak frites.
It's not inherently difficult food to make, but it requires classical training and an eye to detail. A newcomer in Safety Harbor is knocking it out of the park, my favorite find in many months of dining. Parts of Paris (all right, I'm not a fan of the name, too slasher movie) is the project of Chris Orrung and his partner, Jonas Ahlgren. Both are Swedish: Ahlgren is still in Stockholm, where he owns a popular Asian restaurant called East.
Orrung is one of those peripatetic restaurant pros who does a stint in a French ski resort before wandering off to the Bahamas and then setting out to sea on a cruise ship. He ended up in New York, working in restaurants like the fabled Aquavit (when chef Marcus Samuelsson was at the helm). He and his wife, Jacqueline, headed to Florida for some sun, Orrung ending up most recently at Tampa Marriott Waterside.
Ready to do his own thing, he bought a 1936 Florida bungalow adjacent to the charming Green Springs Bistro. It was most recently a yoga studio and required months of build-out, rewiring and plumbing and the installation of a professional kitchen. It's gorgeous, and major kudos to Jacqueline for the interior design. White painted walls and ceiling give way to one vibrant Caribbean blue accent wall, a color that is echoed in a tabletop blue votive holder. There's glamorous patio seating out front, shaded by old oaks, and an intimate bar that seats about 10. It's a tiny place, and I imagine a glowing review could tie up seats for a while. (Make a reservation.)
Servers are young and a bit inexperienced but eager to please, while Orrung is a major presence in the dining room, as is his wonderful young chef, Jeff Thornsberry, 22. A recent Culinary Institute of Charleston grad, Thornsberry shares the kitchen with Lazaro Gonzalez, another alum from the Tampa Marriott Waterside. Thornsberry is on the hot line while Gonzalez tends to the cold stuff and together they make magic.
A one-page menu dazzles with perfectly executed classics. An "amuse" arrives, a pair of puff-pastry swaddled escargots accented with a dressed tangle of zucchini and yellow squash "spaghetti." Then come the hard choices: a low bowl of sumptuous sherried lobster bisque ($10) studded with sweet meat, or a lovely composed Nicoise salad ($9) elevated by plush whole anchovy, snappy haricots verts and fresh hardboiled egg? If you're feeling sinful, a disk of pan-seared fresh foie gras ($16) is paired with rusks of bread and roasted peaches, and the menu's only nod to Swedish cuisine, a plat Bernadotte ($15), features velvety house-cured gravlax and archetypal toast skagen (toasted bread topped with little, dressed Scandinavian shrimp).
And that's just appetizers. Having tried most of the eight entrees, it's hard to name a favorite. A roasted chicken leg (drum and thigh attached) is crisp-skinned and nicely salted, juicy inside and sitting on a buttery tarragon cream sauce with fried potatoes and other roasted veggies ($21). The rack of lamb ($24) is a bargain, with eight ribs woven together around a scoop of ratatouille and roasted fingerlings, the plate dotted with demiglace.
Prices are not quite "special occasion," and Orrung has a wine list of slightly offbeat finds from Southern Wine & Spirits' huge lineup, lots of well-priced French and California offerings by the glass. A Chateau Malmaison 2008 cab from Bordeaux is $12 a glass, $45 a bottle, retailing usually for around $24; Joel Gott 2010 pinot gris is offered for $7/$27, a wine that often retails for $13 — and pairs great with this food.
Pace yourself at dinner. Parts of Paris has the best creme brulee ($8) I've had in years, crisp top giving way with a tap to the lush custard below, and while the chocolate mousse ($8) is more pudding-like than egg-white lofted, its flavor will transport you to Paris, take your pick which part.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.