The restaurant L'Eden has two personas — at lunch, it's one place; at dinner, it's another. That always confused me. It still does. But first, the backstory.
Chef Gerard Jamgotchian came to the United States from Marseille, France, to be the chef at Au Rendez-Vous downtown. Not long after that, he bought out the owners, but negotiations with a new landlord caused him to relocate to a much smaller space across the street in 2007. The dining room at L'Eden is cute and intimate; I hear the kitchen is just plain crazy-small.
Because of that, Jamgotchian has come up with a lunch menu that plays to his strengths. It's a heavily French-inspired list of salads, savory crepes, quiches and sandwiches. A tender-flaky crust may cradle a velvety custard with ham and cheese in suspension for a classic quiche Lorraine ($8.50), or a buttery croissant gets a molten cheese and more ham filling ($8.50), both of these paired with a simple green salad with a most excellent housemade vinaigrette (to me, one of the rarest things in Tampa Bay restaurants).
At lunch, servers know that business folks need to get in and get out, so there's a brisk purposefulness to transactions. You are seated at one of the 10 or so indoor tables or on the garden patio, you select your lemonade ($2.20) and Nicoise salad ($9.95, a real stunner with snappy green beans, olives, eggs, anchovy and so forth, again in a great vinaigrette), and your waiter brings it swiftly. Your check comes unbidden in a timely way.
On a recent lunch visit it felt like they were doing everything right. From savory crepes like the smoked salmon in a creamy sauce ($10.50) to dessert crepes drizzled with chocolate and sprinkled with toasted almonds ($4.95), to textbook New England clam chowder ($4.95, only on Fridays), food quality is high and prices seem very fair. All of which may explain why L'Eden has a loyal midday clientele.
But then comes dinner. A couple years back, I was going to review it for dinner and service was so bumbling I decided to back-burner the review. Great recent lunch experiences caused me to bring it back front and center.
If your guests order a cheese tray of mostly soft French goat cheeses and triple creams ($18), do you rush it out to the table and then make them wait 10 more minutes for plates and warm bread? Er, only if you're on Punk'd. There were so many details that signaled a real lack of training, from poor menu knowledge to not clearing dirty plates before depositing dessert.
The menu is interesting. France continues to play a supporting role, but a more globe-trotting approach brings Panamanian ceviche ($14), Indian veggie biryani ($12) and Greek spanakopita ($9.50). I like the idea of world-beat small plates, but many of the more far-flung dishes lack the authenticity or conviction (read oomph) of the original. Jamgotchian's best work is with the French stuff, from a bold ratatouille ($7.50) to the duck and Brie crepe ($14, the only savory crepe at dinner).
At breakfast, lunch and dinner, the espressomaker murmurs its gentle susurrations at the corner of the bar, which should be an encouragement — cappuccinos are great here, a perfect accompaniment to a dessert crepe. The wine list is Francophilic by the bottle, but the by-the-glass list is split evenly among California, Italy and France.
When thinking about star ratings for L'Eden, I was torn. Service was so subpar at dinner that it dragged down my overall impression of the waitstaff. But with the food, I have been repeatedly charmed and satisfied at lunch and slightly underwhelmed in the evening. Jamgotchian, a consistent and friendly presence in the place, clearly wants the space to roam from his French roots. All good, I say, as long as the roaming yields dishes that rival those from his homeland.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.