What most of us look for in a bistro is a modest, cozy, and convivial atmosphere, perhaps one that reminds us of some humble place once stumbled upon on some side street in Paris -- soft lighting, old posters hanging on the walls, ceiling fans spinning lazily overhead, a pianist plunking out Edith Piaf. Chez Laurent, on Commercial Boulevard for just over two years, welcomes patrons with all of the above, plus a corrugated fiberglass ceiling, fake flowers, a water sculpture of "woman with vase," mismatched, busily patterned table linens, and other thrift-store decorative components. It is not exactly an elegant room but quirkily comforting, especially when filled with a local Lauderdale crowd peppered with cheerful French expatriates singing along to the piano.
What most of us look for on a bistro menu is food that is as accessible and unpretentious as the setting. Bistro chefs are generally content to let their brethren in the finer restaurants deal with duck à l'orange, sole meunière, and delicately constructed patisseries, focusing instead on regionally based working-class dishes like blanquette de veau, pot-au-feu, choucroute, and charcuterie. Chef/owner Laurent Altvatter avoids such compelling country fare, instead trotting out an unimaginative array of home-cooked French and Italian foods.
There are ways to maintain the integrity of the past while keeping up with contemporary dining preferences. For instance, wine with food is a matter of course in France, particularly in bistros, where sitting down for a meal without a bottle or carafe on the table is viewed as suspiciously as showing up at the laundromat without any laundry. A bistro wine list needn't be expansive or intricate, and there was a time when Chez Laurent could get away with its lackluster selection of mostly French bottles. But those South Floridians who would nowadays seek out a bistro seem to be precisely the types of diners who would appreciate the inclusion of a few distinctive vintners.
The same clientele would likely be grateful for a country paté, a platter of assorted saucisson, or some imported fromage. As a means of pointing to troubling regional disagreements, Charles de Gaulle once complained, "How is it possible to govern a country which produces more than 377 different cheeses?" I wonder how it's possible that a restaurant representing a 377-cheese land serves only mozzarella with tomatoes, chêvre with greens, Roquefort as salad dressing, and Gruyère atop onion soup.
The onion soup happened to be quite tasty, with bold onion flavor, deep beef backbeat, and melted cheese capped on thickly. The Roquefort salad wasn't bad either, a healthy mound of fresh field greens and little walnut pieces bathed in that pungent ewe's milk cheese. Four triangles of a coarse and conventional salmon terrine were enhanced by accompaniments of toast points, fresh tomatoes, and dabs of Dijon mustard, but look instead for a special starter of tender frog legs in delicate lemon sauce -- as nicely executed as anything we sampled.
We didn't try Laurent's escargot appetizer, but we did get to experience the kitchen's snail-like pace in putting out food. While during most of our visits service was friendly and accommodating, when my wife and I showed up one evening without a reservation, our reception was anything but. Only about a dozen people were dining in the 65-seat room, but the pending arrival of a table of 14 made the hostess hesitant to let us in. After a brief wait, we did get seated and quickly put in our order before the large party showed up. Alas, that group entered shortly afterward, and they were contentedly munching on preplated cold appetizers before we received our first courses -- some 40 minutes after we'd first sat down. Even with the hungry 14, only half the seats were filled. A restaurant really should be able to handle the cooking and serving of that many, especially on a Friday evening, when you'd imagine they'd have full staff on hand. Subsequent visits on slower nights also brought noticeable lags between courses. It helps that the wait staff is a sympathetic lot that for the most part performs its job with pluck and aplomb.
Main courses were far less gratifying than the appetizers, and I'm not even referring to the mundane broccoli and carrots (on one occasion both mushily overcooked) that crown all plates and bookend a starch du jour that could range from a workmanlike wedge of potato gratin to a cold, dense pile of mashed potatoes. There is simply a lack of finesse to the fare, revealed most blatantly in a desiccated coq au vin. This dish originated in Burgundy as a means of slow-cooking not-so-young, not-so-tender cocks whose slaughter dates were postponed due to their breeding abilities. The traditional preparation is defined by the chicken getting marinated and then braised in that regions' eponymous red wine. Nowadays, younger chickens are used, but you wouldn't know that from tasting Laurent's version, the boneless half-bird appearing to have been roasted -- and not anytime too recently -- then heated in a brown sauce with proper Burgundian verve but marred by too much salt.
An old axiom from Southwest France states that "where there is a beautiful fat pig, there is a good home cook." At Chez Laurent there was no pig at all, as they were out of "Jamaican style pork loin." The dish's description as being dusted lightly with jerk spices seemed about as far out of the box as this kitchen would go, but I regretfully switched my order to a grilled New York strip topped with "famous shallot & wine sauce." The sirloin was presented a proper medium-rare, but it was a tough cut, and any flavor it may have once possessed was drowned in a drab draping of salty beef gravy.
A half-dozen thick, juicy scallops were the most successful entrée, the natural sweetness of the shellfish adroitly counterpointed by tart champagne-butter sauce brightened with saffron. I suppose one could likewise say that a raspberry-Bordeaux wine sauce provided a stimulating contrast to the gamier notes of a grilled, skinless "magret" duck breast, but in fact I found the dominating berry flavor cloying. And what exactly is the purpose of removing the skin from the duck?
For that matter, why take a detour from French cooking into Italian? People love their pastas, I guess, though they'd be hard-pressed to express much affection for Laurent's bowl of spaghettini topped with thick, herbless marinara sauce -- especially if they took the menu description seriously and were expecting, as I was, "angel hair pasta topped with fresh diced tomato and basil." A short selection of Italian-style chicken breast and veal cutlet dishes is available too, a choice of the two sautéed with marsala sauce, baked with parmesan, or battered and served with white wine and lemon sauce.
Chocolate "expresso" cake was a triangular, pie-shaped take on the more familiar domed chocolate bombé, the concept still being a delectable dark chocolate treat microwaved until the center melts to a soufflé consistency. Most times you get served a steamy hot dessert, you can bet it's been zapped, but one evening, a warm tarte tatin was actually brought to us after recently being removed from the oven. Sided by a scoop of vanilla ice cream, the pie was delicious and inarguably fresh, but the apples didn't have any trademark tatin carmelization, which is the rationale for baking the tart upside down in the first place.
Laurent's cuisine is uneven, but the prices are consistently appealing -- appetizers from $5.95 to $8.95, nonpasta entrées from $14.95 to $23.95. Joy Smith plays piano Tuesday through Saturday, and our weekend visit proved very entertaining as a couple of different diners joined Joy and belted out surprisingly strong renditions of songs I'd never heard while other folks got up and danced between the tables. With such boisterous ambiance and propriety of price, Chez Laurent will likely appeal to those who like to shake an arm and a leg but don't want to spend one.
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