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:
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?
Though I intend to, I haven't yet taken advantage of these deals, because I get so entranced by the chef's nightly specials using French techniques on local ingredients. Like the frogs' legs, for instance, or the main course of alligator française -- several incredibly tender medallions coated in an egg batter and pan-fried with butter and lemon. I've rarely had alligator, or anything française, for that matter, so expertly done. Even the dish of mashed potatoes that came alongside, glimmering with melted butter and hinting at Parmesan cheese, was superb.
Entrée portions are immense enough to deter you from ordering extra side dishes. This could prove a shame: Who wants to pass up fresh leaf spinach, just wilted from the heat and lightly sauced with cream? But because the country-style, one-dish main courses are so tempting and so large, the repeat customer soon learns that it's overkill to frame the meal with both appetizers and desserts.
Do it anyway. The French onion gratinée was pleasingly light, not reconstituted from a salty beef base, and featured a toasted crouton that held its form despite its immersion in the sweet onion broth. A pungent layer of Gruyère sealed the soup. Puff pastry, topped with a mixture of shiitake and portobello mushrooms sautéed in brandy and garlic, was a similarly outstanding starter -- not complex or wildly inventive but true to itself and prepared without shortcuts. For dessert try the homemade flourless chocolate mousse cake, or pick a crepe, any crepe. The lacy pancake was particularly enticing stuffed with bananas and a caramel sauce with just a hint of liqueur.
Some of the best delights of La Vie en Rose aren't available at dinnertime. During Sunday brunch, however, you can listen to a live classical pianist, sip gratis mimosas, and sample succulent Brie-and-baby-asparagus omelets. Heartier appetites can warm up to dishes like the croque madame, a ham-and-Gruyère sandwich pan-fried and topped with two poached eggs, or the linguine studded with pulled chicken and fresh leaf spinach and bathed in a light garlic-cream sauce. Ah, the guilty pleasures that prove breakfast truly is the most important meal of the day! Just take it easy on the champagne if you want to remember your meal, because no matter how many tricks you have up your sleeve, you can't take home a menu to remind you.