You might not know you like French food yet, but you do. Cuisine as we know it would not be where it is without the influence of classic, haute French cooking. From sauces and sous vide, to bistros and brasseries -- as well as plenty of groundbreaking chefs and ambitious restaurateurs -- the panorama of plating food is, at its core, française.
Although South Florida is certainly no bastion of French fare, a few places have found their way into the fray and made a name. In Hollywood, Bistro 1902 fills the franco void thanks to its owner, Paris-born Karim Laitaoui. He is often at the front of the house, greeting guests and helping to seat them -- a necessary evil for any true, family-run establishment. But his real job is in the back of the house; Laitaoui is executive chef, on the line each night executing each dish with nascent precision, despite no formal training.
Laitaoui learned many recipes working the line before taking the reins to lead his own establishment several years ago. One recipe he didn't have to learn, however. It's one he's known since childhood: his mother's crepes. Today, it's a task so familiar, it's hard for him to single out what makes them so special. Depending on the recipe, he'll use anything from sparkling water and beer to tequila and Grand Marnier to cut the batter. They're cooked over a gas flame in a special skillet imported from France. But the most important factor might be location. Laitaoui swears they won't come out the same anywhere other than his kitchen, even if you use his batter.
"When you travel as much as I have, you want the comforts of home," says Laitaoui. "For me, that meant the food. TV, you can find any channel online. Family can visit. But the food, you have to make that for yourself. I begged [my mother] to teach me so I could have them whenever I wanted."
Laitaoui and his family moved to South Florida in 2004. Together, they frequented a downtown Hollywood steak house called Beef Eater until an evening in 2010.
"We showed up one night for dinner, and the doors were closed," says Laitaoui. "My wife and I had always wanted to open our own restaurant, so we called the next day to inquire about the space. A few months later [in 2011], we opened."
Bistro 1902 was an ambitious move, but it's proved a profitable one. Thanks to its location at the last corner of Hollywood Boulevard -- and thus, the name -- you'll find there is no long wait for a table, no tense negotiation with an uptight hostess. It seems safe to say the food, though expertly executed, is entirely unfussy. While French fare can be a bit intimidating and heavy, Laitaoui's casual touch makes it more approachable and digestible. Add a guarantee of fast, attentive service in a dim-lit, minimalist dining room and the place becomes the type you frequent once a week, not just on special occasions.
A menu of bistro-style classics encourages adventurous orders: frogs' legs, boeuf bourguignon, duck confit, foie gras, and escargots.
The frogs' legs, he admits, were a risk.
"I didn't want to put them on the menu, so we tried them as a special and had great reviews," Laitaoui says. "Now they are on both the lunch and dinner menu."
His begin with a light dusting of flour before being seared on a hot pan. Diners are presented with two plump pairs of legs, with meat that is firm and still recognizable, offering the thrill of eating something foreign and exotic -- at least to American palates -- until they find out it really does taste just like chicken.
Still, some entrées have been selected with an eye for American taste, says Laitaoui. The faint at heart find refuge with a burger and surf and turf with a Champagne sauce. They are familiar and comfortable, despite being served with a French interpretation.
The best items, however, are the French triumphs of fat and flavor. Start with a foie gras appetizer, a two-ounce portion of Hudson Valley's finest, seared in its own unguent juices -- just a touch of olive oil, salt, and pepper -- finished with a raspberry vinegar reduction, and served with a half poached pear and mixed greens.
Everything that follows reaches the same casual perfection, including a special dish of duck rossini, a rich plate of slow-roasted duck confit, topped with another cut of foie gras and finished with an indulgent house-made porcini mushroom sauce made with white wine, heavy cream, salt, and pepper. It's a dish worth fasting for.
With so many pricey ingredients, it's easy to feel your purse strings tighten at Bistro 1902. Luckily, a newly implemented VIP patron promotion makes your wine selection a bit more economical, at least. Each week, the wine menu changes as Laitaoui hunts for the best deals, but the rewards are extraordinary -- like a Châteauneuf-du-Pape for just $35 per bottle.
"In France, a good meal comes with good wine," says Laitaoui. "As my father always said: 'Water is just to shower.' Wine is for eating."
Finally, though all French dessert is -exquisite -- and here made from scratch, from the apple tartin to the crème brûlée -- the most exotic is the ice cream sampler, imported from a small, organic farm in France. Just a spoonful of the basil gelato captures the herb in creamy sweetness, as though it were plucked fresh from the garden, an instant jolt of pleasure and comfort.
For Laitaoui, that's what good French food is all about, and although downtown Hollywood certainly isn't Paris, with an evening at Bistro 1902, it may as well be.
Bistro 1902 is located at 1902 Hollywood Blvd. in Hollywood. Call 954-689-2229, or visit www.bistro1902.com for more information.
Follow Nicole Danna on Twitter, @SoFloNicole.
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