ST. PETE BEACH AND TIERRA VERDE
There's Tinder. There's Match.com. But sometimes, love is found via Google.
Lauren Chezaud-Diot, born and raised in Paris, was tired of the French rat race, tired of working for American Express in advertising. The American economy was still shaky, the currency exchange favored France, so many French folks were considering investing in American beachfront real estate. Chezaud-Diot wasn't keen on Florida's other coast, so she Googled:
America's most beautiful beach.
That year the answer was St. Pete Beach. She bought a plane ticket and came to check it out, fell in love and bought a house. With a 2-year-old son and a husband with a more "serious" job in the health care industry, Chezaud-Diot cast about for what to do. Her friends told her to do what she enjoys doing. (Friends always say that, right?) She decided to open a small cafe, and so the first Café Soleil debuted in Dolphin Village in St. Pete Beach in 2013. In 2015, an outpost in Tierra Verde's Marina Plaza opened, and a third Pinellas County deal is already inked. (The ink is still wet, so she declines to say where.)
The cafes have taken off. During high season, they may serve 800 people a day at the St. Pete Beach location. Both spots have a pretty, breezy aesthetic with a long ordering counter strewn with platters of croissants, fruit tarts and baguettes, nicely lettered chalkboards giving the rundown of salads, sandwiches and quiches.
This is familiar food; you have seen this menu before. But what makes it notable is the quality of the finished product. Whether chocolate hazelnut croissant ($2.95) or cherry cheese plait ($3.65), you'll wonder when you last had one so good as you pull apart the tectonic plates of buttery, flaky pastry. (Chezaud-Diot says they bake every hour or two because the humidity gets to the breads and pastries quickly.)
In a couple of visits I worked through most of the menu at both locations. The Amour salad ($7.75) was the most vivacious of three, with a fan of cukes on one side, a fan of crisp apple on the other, the center mounded with mesclun mix, Roquefort crumbles, candied walnuts and a generous flurry of bacon. My only complaint is that the lovely vinaigrette was served on the side and it's too small a bowl to toss effectively.
Sandwiches are offered on toasted croissants or elegant, crusty house-made baguettes — can't go wrong either way. On the latter side, I was most taken by the Simone ($7.95) with swaths of velvety smoked salmon, a big swipe of cucumber cream cheese, dill, lemon and planks of grilled squash. With the croissant offerings, I made a satisfying lunch of one heaped with roast beef, Muenster and zingy mustard ($5.95).
The Café Soleil team, which includes a new kitchen manager who went to Le Cordon Bleu and Chezaud-Diot's brother, Alex Chezaud, who came to help for two weeks and never left, is exacting about ingredients. They're using Kahwa coffee, imported Italian prosciutto and mozzarella and a whole bunch of French cheeses. They roast their own chickens, and all vegetables are organic. They're not loud about any of this; you just taste it in the food.
One morning at the St. Pete Beach location, it seemed like half the dining room was camped out (free Wi-Fi!), reading, sipping lattes, chatting and happily ambling from a midmorning almond croissant ($3.25) to a satisfying lunch of Oh La La quiche with bacon, caramelized onion and cheese ($6.95 and perhaps the most delicious classic on the short menu). I'm sure in high season the place is more frenetic, with a long line snaking down the order counter, but in September, before the crowds, Café Soleil seemed like a little gem that Google brought us.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.