Where have they all gone?
Thirty years ago, fine dining meant French dining. Coquilles Saint-Jacques, sole meuniere and duck a l'orange; cream sauces and poufy souffles that made a whole dining room sigh in anticipation.
French restaurants have disappeared. And this is not isolated to Tampa Bay. In metro areas all over America, diners are wondering where they went, fruitlessly trolling for coq au vin and soupe de poisson a la rouille. What's weird is this: Anybody who has been to culinary school has been put through their paces in French fundamentals, Escoffier and Careme and the "mother sauces."
Some experts say the lack of restaurants is because the essentials of French cooking have been incorporated widely. The stocks and layered flavors, the poaching and braising, the custards and meringues and mousses — it's all part of upscale American cuisine, isn't it? Others say that health concerns have steered us away from heavy cream sauces, and still others say French-American relations in the past 15 years have been chilly enough to put some folks off French cuisine entirely.
But I miss it. Because Café Largo is just about the only remaining stalwart, and because they happened to celebrate their 30th anniversary on Thursday, I thought it was time to check back in and see how chef-owner Dominique Christini was doing.
Articulate and charming, he has been a go-to source for me when it comes to all things francais. In fact, last year he was one of 1,000 chefs on five continents to simultaneously present menus extolling the merits of the classical French kitchen. Like a performance art piece with lots of foie gras, its aim was to raise awareness of the importance of French fundamentals in the kitchen.
Based on a couple of recent visits, it's what Christini does every day.
One of those evenings was that anniversary party, the attendees largely longtime boosters, friends and family members, the most salient of which was Christini's brother, a wine importer who splits his time between the United States and Provence, France. He brought the evening's wine, a revelatory lineup (the revelation being, wow, I mostly drink swill) that ranged from a 2000 La Madura St. Chinian, a blended red of mourvedre, syrah, carignan and grenache from Languedoc still lush with fruit despite its age and with fascinating leather and eucalyptus notes, to a stunning small-production Bruno Michel Champagne from the villages of Pierry and Moussy in the Sud Epernay subregion of Champagne. Its spiced apple and brioche dough effervescence lured my schnoz back repeatedly, and it made Moet and Veuve and the other super biggies seem boring.
So, good wine, check. What else Café Largo serves to remind us is this: It's nice when a gracious server ushers you to a candle-flickery (fake, but still) table with plenty of elbow room; it's nice to be able to hear your dinner date; it's nice to take your time, to eat languorously and pause often. Oh, and sauces are nice, as is real butter, especially piped in a pretty rosette, especially with warm, crusty house-made bread.
Christini's food is frequently not Instagram-ready. There are formal touches like turned vegetables and perfect juliennes, but often plates feature a brown protein center stage, one napped with a brown or beige sauce and surrounded by a scattering of vegetables and maybe whipped potatoes. There is no verticality or Sriracha squiggles or shock-and-awe touches.
But he kills it on the classics, from tidy discs of beef tenderloin spooned with perfectly lush, tarragon-flecked bearnaise ($29.95) to another filet — rosy medium rare center, caramelized edge — topped with a hot slice of foie gras that melts to become a sauce with the texture of hollandaise, meaty and nearly obscenely rich. (This, a dish known as Tournedos Rossini without the usual bread rounds, was part of the five-course anniversary dinner, $86 plus tax and service.)
Christini executes both duck breast and rack of lamb perfectly, generous portions appropriately accessorized and sauced, plates never so frenetic that you lose sight of the star of the show. It's a tough restaurant for vegetarians (Christini will make you something, just ask), but he exhibits the same exactitude with his tiny salads, served apres entree, which can be accompanied by a slice or two of good cheese from the cheese board that ambles around the room pre-dessert. It's not exhaustive, maybe four or five options, from bright orange Mimolette to stinky blue-veined Morbier or fudgy-gooey Brillat-Savarin.
Café Largo is among the last restaurants in the area to have a dessert list as long as the entree options. (There's Bern's, and where else?) You will always find a seasonal tart and poached pears (both $8.25), but go all in: The Grand Marnier souffle ($11.75, but two people need to order them and you have to do it at the start of your meal), the dome of it slowly deflating, its interior cloudlike and yielding, has a magical ability to make diners feel giddy and/or libidinous. And that has always been the magic of French food, la cuisine d'amour. After 30 years, Christini still teaches a French cooking class once a month. Because who doesn't want to learn to create a little extra love?
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.