This may sound counterintuitive, but sometimes the most exciting new restaurants are the efforts of those new to the restaurant business, rookies who are striking out in a new direction because "darn it, there ought to be a restaurant like this around here." Alésia Restaurant is such a place. Opened on Memorial Day in a storefront vacated by a scooter shop, Alésia is utterly charming, with a menu of casual French and Vietnamese cafe classics at super-reasonable prices, nothing over $8.50.
Sisters Sandra Ly-Flores and Erika Ly and co-owner Paul Hsu wanted to replicate, on a slightly weary stretch of Central Avenue in west St. Petersburg, the cafes they remember from the women's youth spent in the 14th arondissement in Paris. Alésia is the street they grew up on. This isn't fancy French-Vietnamese fusion — it's coffee shop fare, a gooey croque monsieur next to a rice noodle bowl; pho next to a flaky chocolate croissant. It's the kind of place you want to nurse a thick Vietnamese coffee or skate a refreshing summer roll through a bowl of hoisin peanut sauce while you read a book.
The reason you'll want to hang out: It's lovely. Unpolished concrete floors, big windows and fresh white paint provide a clean backdrop for rough-hewn wooden tables and chairs, including a long central communal table under sweet, copper-colored pendant lamps. An umbrellaed courtyard off the back fills with the whisper of several fountains; a generously proportioned service bar is hung with a chalkboard of the offerings, tiered cake stands crowded with French pastries.
The sisters, who also own a stock photography business headquartered in Paris, have staffed Alésia with fresh-faced young people eager to please. They may not have every answer, but they're willing to find out. The walls are hung with the work of local artist Mariana Socorro and jazz plays gently on the sound system. Order at the counter, or pull up a seat and a server comes to you.
At breakfast, there are many winning options, my favorite being the crepe wrap ($5), a perfect thin crepe enfolding fluffy scrambled eggs, chopped Parisian ham and a dollop of Mornay sauce laced heavily with Gruyere, the whole thing topped off with a flurry of chopped chives. Equally ooh la la was a toasted baguette draped with smoked salmon and a schmear of chive cream cheese ($6), capers and red onion as garnish. The restaurant buys its croissants (very nice pain au chocolat, $2), but rolls out puff pastry for the other flaky pastries, all a nice foil for a rich cappuccino ($3).
At lunchtime, daily specials (quiches and the like) are listed on a board, with a phalanx of French sandwiches and wholesome Vietnamese classics on the one-page printed menu. On my visits, I'd say the Vietnamese dishes (summer rolls, vermicelli bowls) were healthful and nurturing, but not as lively in flavor as some of my favorite Vietnamese spots. They need a more robust use of herbs and chilies. The house banh mi ($6) is unconventional for its inclusion of salami and what tasted like herbed mayonnaise. It's still a nice example of a dish that marries French and Vietnamese flavors: the richness of pate cut with the sweet/tartness of pickled carrots and a pouf of cilantro.
The owners aim to open a couple nights a week for dinner soon, which will put the thoughtful small wine list to better use (or maybe I'm just a stick-in-the-mud at lunchtime). The short list shows a real love of moderately priced German, Alsatian and French wines from Provence and the Languedoc.
Alésia feels brand-spanking new, a labor of love still in its infancy. But scoop up a big bite of Nutella and banana crepe, and it's hard not to agree with Hsu and the Ly sisters — there ought to be a restaurant like this around here.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com 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.