By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
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By Laine Doss
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A couple of years ago, the wife of GQ food critic Alan Richman wrote an essay for Food & Wine. In it she defined her main purpose as dining companion: Richman instructed her always to carry a large black purse so that when he stole the menu he'd have somewhere to hide it.
Don't laugh. Since I don't take notes when I dine out, the written menu is crucial to me, something I can look at that will bring back all the details of a meal. So while I like to think of myself as a generally moral person with only a few major faults, I pinch more menus from unwitting restaurateurs than a heroin addict clips TVs. I've stuffed 'em down my shirt; I've hidden several in my daughter's baby seat (which I guess makes her something of a menu mule); I've created diversions while my father-in-law edges ever closer to the host stand.
Of course I wouldn't have to resort to these measures if the server/host/manager/proprietor would come up with copies of the menu when I, other food critics, or even perfectly normal people who just like to salivate ask for them. Or if proprietors, such as the ones at La Vie en Rose Café, were more willing to ensure that their customers who really want menus can have them. Let's replay the conversation I had with the owner the other night:
2950 N. State Road 7
Margate, FL 33063-5748
Me, the Anonymous Critic/Everydiner: "Do you have a copy of the menu I can take with me?"
She, the Blasé or Perhaps Distracted-by-a-Busy-Night Proprietor: "No."
Me (spying a fax machine): "Can you fax me one?"
She (following my gaze): "No."
Me (somewhat exasperated): "Can you copy one on the fax machine?"
She (somewhat annoyed): "No, it won't fit."
Me (in a final, desperate bid): "I'll tell you why I want one. I work for a newspaper, and I thought our restaurant critic would be interested in this café. Would I be able to take one of your menus with me?"
So I, wearing a formfitting shirt and minus father-in-law, baby seat, or large black handbag, had to leave without a menu. (By the way, I have the same fax machine, and I'm pretty sure the menu would have fit if she'd turned it sideways.)
Yet if I were to catalog all the faux pas that the proprietors, chefs, and staff at La Vie en Rose have made during my two visits, the failure to supply a menu would be one of only three. The second was an overeager waitress who, when I queried her about a menu item, exclaimed, "Oh, that's my favorite!" and then had to ask me, "What is it again?" The third was the frigid air conditioning on one occasion; it chilled us to the bone with its mistral-like gusts.
Apart from these small things, La Vie en Rose, a country French restaurant located in an unlikely Margate neighborhood on State Road 7, is a wonderful place. The name means "the life in pink," which reminds me of the title of a recent film about a young boy who liked to cross-dress, but this ain't Wilton Manors. The waitresses here do wear long, black, flowered dresses, but not to hide the size-12 shoe of a transvestite.
Rather, the effect of their apparel is quiet elegance, which matches the setting. Though it's situated at the far end of a modern, cement-block strip mall, the café is charmingly decorated with lace curtains, a cabbage-rose carpet, double tablecloths (one pink, the other white), and hand-colored black-and-white photos on the faux-finish walls. Up near the two-story-high ceiling, a mural of the Provençal landscape stretches under the rafters, and whimsical items like a bicycle with baguettes in its basket are perched on an interior balcony. When you order Provençal specialties such as bourride -- a fish stew seasoned with garlic, saffron, and a little bitter orange peel -- you really feel like you're in the South of France.
You could be anywhere in France, really, if items like crepes, calves' liver sautéed in port wine and raisins, or the ubiquitous (there, but hard to find here) coq au vin are your game. I was delighted to find an old favorite, cassoulet, a main dish so divine that French poets have penned odes to it. Baked and served in a casserole, La Vie's cassoulet was prepared in the style of Toulouse, which means that duck and sausage were cooked for some hours with white beans, the main ingredient. A sprinkling of bread crumbs had melted into the savory stew of beans and meats, unifying their flavors. A green salad served with a tangy balsamic vinaigrette accompanied the abundant cassoulet, which sells for the unbelievably low price of $9.95.
In fact the prices are so laughably low and the quality of the fare so delightfully high that I wonder how the place stays in business. I don't want to ruin a good thing, but how can La Vie en Rose afford to serve a four-course winemaker's dinner (the last Wednesday of each month) for a mere $30, or offer a "lovers' dinner," a three-course meal for two complete with a bottle of wine, for $49?