It was during a backpacking excursion through France (funded via my grad school student loans) that I first began to truly appreciate the country's haute cuisine. I loved the food so much that it led to an obsession for all things French. Maybe this is what caused me to naively marry a Frenchman. The marriage didn't last, and I'm still paying back those loans, but such woes haven't diluted my affection for succulent, traditional French food.
Despite food trends that come and go, gastronomes will always love French cooking for the promise of Old World charm, those fresh breads and pastries, traditional dishes, and decadent flavors. At Olivier Le Gloahec's Carpe Diem by Cafe de France in Delray Beach, I reunited with many of those classic and regionally inspired standards like the rich butter-and-cream cooking of the north and the olive oil and garlic flavors of the south.
Old World charm? Check.
According to the restaurant's website, the Le Gloahec family is "one of the most oldest Chef & Baker Family in France (1820 our first Restaurant — Bakery)." These sixth-generation restaurateurs can be counted upon for Old World charm and tradition. Beginning with the décor, the restaurant stands out against the funkier, more modern eateries lining Atlantic Avenue. Whereas trendier restaurants decorate their patios with 1950s office themes or upholstered wing-back lounge chairs, Carpe Diem is undeniably French (servers and all), if not a tad flashy. It rocks a 19th-century style with a cacophony of sparkles and gold: shiny trinkets, naked cherubs, and prints hugged by heavy golden frames. Dozens of stenciled fleur-de-lis (stylized lily flowers) pepper the walls, which are painted — you guessed it — gold.
The eatery has an intimate feel, even after a renovation last year that added 50-some seats and several new entrées to the menu (beef bourguignon and risotto del mar, to name a couple). With the new bistro-style look came a revised name; instead of Cafe de France, it's now Carpe Diem by Cafe de France. Lunch and dinner are served every day, brunch on weekends.
On a recent weekday, I sat alone for lunch on the covered patio overlooking Atlantic Avenue. A young brunet waitress sporting a silk scarf was busy explaining what a mimosa was to the couple seated behind me. I sipped on my own mimosa (they were on special for $1) and eavesdropped. I wondered at the waitress' politeness; her slow, patient hospitality — no rushing of the customers, no smirking at naïveté. Carpe Diem is truly Old World French, all the way down to its gracious service.
Fresh baked goods? Yup.
Looking from the patio through the floor-to-ceiling windows, one can see a glass case filled with assorted pastries and tartes taunting the customers. The lunch menu tormented me with sandwich and tartine options, all served with fresh baked bread. Passing up staples such as croque monsieur (a grilled ham and Gruyère cheese sandwich) and a pâté sandwich (country or Provençal pâté on baguette with romaine and cornichons), I chose to crunch into a baguette filled with Roquefort and pear. At first bite, the sweet raspberry vinaigrette and sliced fruit quickly surrendered to salty Roquefort (a blue cheese aged in the caves of Southern France) and savory chicken. The sandwich was as big as it was flavorful. My only complaint: The bread was stiff where it should have been crunchy — it was either stale or overheated.
On a different visit, I fared better with a starter of Norwegian smoked salmon. The brioche toast rivaled the spotlight ingredient. Buttery, tender, and rich, the bread could function perfectly as a burger bun, but here, it was delicate enough for salmon. The puffy toast made a sumptuous pillow for the cured salmon, sweet from a dressing of citrus, dill, and Muscadet (a refreshing white wine).
Traditional dishes? Several.
How to choose among favorites such as mussels mariniere, foie gras, chicken cordon bleu, or coq au vin? Solution: Carpe Diem's prix fixe dinner ($29 for three courses) will get you varied selections for a fair price. Each of the options comes with its own palate cleanser between first and second course: a lemon-mint sorbet that brings a cool, watery wash. A few of the entrées such as the duck a l'orange will cost an extra fee ($5 to $10), but the half-order of roasted duck with Grand Marnier sauce is still a bargain. The skin is crispy and the meat juicy, and the extremely sweet orange sauce is sure to provide a week's worth of vitamin C, considering how much orange is added.
A slight miss during one of my dinner courses was the escargots. In Paris, I began an addiction to fresh snails, even contemplating taking the pretty, iridescent shells home with me from the restaurant. I ate escargots de Bourgogne en meurette (snails with mushrooms, onion, and bacon with wine sauce) more times than would seem reasonable. But at Carpe Diem, the garlic-butter snails are chewy. They could use more butter than oil and more parsley than garlic.
During my lunch visit, the mimosa virgins behind me and I were on our second round of $1 house champagne lightly spiked with orange juice when a bowl of gratinéed onion soup arrived. Popular even in Roman times, French onion soup has pleased generations of palates. Carpe Diem's beef broth is on the salty side, but sweet caramelized onions sealed with a layer of browned Gruyère cheese are so tasty, it doesn't matter. The traditional clay serving bowl always seems to remain hot until the last drop of soup is gone, and the best part is using a spoon to scrape the remaining cheese crusted on the sides.
Decadent flavors? Mais, oui!
At the heart of one of Carpe Diem's signature entrées, steak au poivre, is a round of thick filet mignon seared to a crusty exterior and crimson center. A ladle of rich cream-and-cognac pan sauce surrounds the filet while half-cracked peppercorns speckle the surface like buttons. The dish is so indulgent that I savored each bite slowly. The servers misconstrued my slow pace as defeat; one busser nearly lost a forearm after a premature attempt to clear the plate.
But no — even the leftover creamy sauce went to good use, sopped up by garlic mashed potatoes. The texture was velvety, like a starch version of chocolate mousse. It reminded me of a dish called aligot that I had tried in Southern France: melted cheese blended into mashed potatoes, creating an elastic consistency.
No matter how full one might be, a dessert of profiterole — a hollow puff of pastry filled with ice cream — is a must. The ball of dough is completed with a sprinkling of chocolate sauce that gleams with an espresso sheen. Diners on their best behavior might deem the profiterole too decadent and choose a poached pear instead (though it's barely healthier). Despite my pear being poached to a point of overtenderness, the fruit absorbed all the sweet and robust red wine, which blended smoothly with a glimmering chocolate sauce.
After the last drop of chocolate faded from the silver serving dish and the champagne flute went dry, I felt the satisfaction that comes with a classic meal. I bet customers in the first Le Gloahec restaurants were just as pleased.