Some things just go together: peanut butter and jelly, peaches and cream, rice and beans, and, it seems, mussels and fries.
Of course, you'd understand this pairing better if you hailed from Belgium or France, where moules frites — steamed mussels and fried potatoes — are as classic a pairing as our burgers and fries or England's fish and chips.
In South Florida, you can find a discerning version of this classic French dish at Hollywood's 4-year-old Le Comptoir. Here, chef-owner Céline Maury and her husband, Otis, are preparing some of the city's most affordable and approachable French fare.
Both Parisian natives, the couple met nearly two decades ago at Otis' Creole-style restaurant, Le Soleil, which he operated in France's capital city. At the time, Céline was looking for a job. She began working at the restaurant, and the rest — as they say — is history.
"That was 18 years ago," says Céline. "Today, we have a beautiful family. And Le Comptoir."
Desiring a change of scenery, the couple moved to South Florida in 2008. Two years later, they opened a small restaurant and bar in South Beach before moving to Hollywood to open a more traditional French restaurant with Le Comptoir — which roughly translates to "the bar."
"At the time, we were looking for a better space to open a true French restaurant," says Céline, who fell in love with the small building off Harrison Street in downtown Hollywood where Le Comptoir found its home.
With its demure exterior and dimly lit, living-room-like cozy interior, Le Comptoir is the very definition of a small, family-run operation. Otis does the shopping each day, and the restaurant holds relatively short hours.
Aside from the two booths and half a dozen tables, there's just one of everything: one hostess, one server, one stove, one cook, and a single sous chef. The bar that can seat more than a dozen seems almost unnecessary. There's no bartender, no liquor, and no cocktail menu — just a short list of well-chosen and reasonably priced French wine, available by the glass or bottle.
Walk in from the street and a charming young lady will greet you at the door. She's not only the couple's eldest daughter but also the restaurant's server and, when the kitchen bell rings fervently from the back, sometimes the busser.
Here, Céline prepares each of the menu's selections à la minute. As a patron, it will demand a bit of patience: Dining here is a slow-paced, intimate experience. If you're in a rush or desire the clamor of a boisterous bar scene, you won't find it here.
"Your order may take awhile, but everything here is made to order," says Céline.
The dining room seats up to 60, with outdoor seating on balmy nights. A reservation is recommended, however, especially during season. The tables seem perennially taken thanks to an active local population of French Canadians who have discovered Le Comptoir's unique ambiance and adopted the restaurant as a home away from home.
On busy weekend nights, tables are shuffled and rearranged, often shoved together to form long, banquet-style seating for the large parties who converse — often passionately — in a cacophony of animated French. From time to time, Céline will emerge from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dishcloth at her waist as she moves among patrons, inquiring after their meal.
The dish she's best-known for: Le Comptoir's specialty, those steamed mussels, dozens upon dozens delivered fresh daily from Maine or Prince Edward Island.
Across France and Belgium, moules-frites are considered quintessential comfort fare. In Belgium, mussels — both cheap and plentiful — once made for an inexpensive meal, paired with fried potatoes for a simple, easy dish. Over the years, mussels made the move to fancier environs, served everywhere from Parisian bistros and restaurants to small cafés where groups of diners share pots of bivalves the way Americans order chicken wings.
At Le Comptoir, Céline offers several variations of the dish, each based on a traditional marinière sauce derived from salted butter, white wine, chopped shallot, and parsley blended to create a rich, tangy broth. The restaurant presents a number of interpretations, including a cream version (enriched with crème fraîche, flour, and celery), Provençal-style (with tomato, garlic, mixed herbs, and olive oil), curry (for an exotic twist), Dijon mustard (a combination of grain mustard sauce and cream), or blue cheese.
Rather than take the classic route, order the blue cheese mussels, a recipe Céline took from one of her regular Canadian customers. It's a twist on the traditional marinière sauce but mellowed with crème fraîche and spiked with globs of pungent blue cheese that soften and bleed into the savory wine-and-butter broth.
The mussels arrive faster than any other dish. They're delivered hot and steaming, heaped into a long ceramic bowl, the bottom-most bivalves submerged beneath a soup-like sauce. Tender bits of celery, onion, and parsley cling to the black shells, adding a delicate perfume and soft, vegetal tang.
Tackle the two-pound pile the way the French do: wielding empty shells like tweezers to pluck out the soft meat. When the bowl of empty shells rivals the main dish, there are still the fries to contend with. They're neither too fat nor too thin, the perfect balance of soft and tender inside and crispy and crunchy outside. Flecked with salt and parsley, they simply must be dipped in the sauce, which has rendered itself into a creamy, cheesy pool as rich as mayonnaise.
The restaurant also offers more standard French fare. The menu opens with several appetizers, each priced under $15, from a pan-fried-frog-leg salad to a half-dozen escargots served in a garlic butter sauce.
Main plates are equally affordable, delivering fish, meat, and poultry in healthy portions. The fillet de sole is a favorite dish, but the pave de saumon (salmon) is one of Céline's best dishes. A six-ounce fillet is coated in a thick, white-wine cream sauce over a bed of lentils, all of it topped with a tender roasted tomato and crispy tendrils of shallot that make for a lovely, edible garnish.
For meat eaters, the biftek haché is an elegant, pan-seared burger minus the bun. The meat is flavored with herbs and topped with a single sun-dried tomato and perfectly sunny-side-up egg. A heartier meal comes via the eight-ounce rib eye, served two ways: with a milky Roquefort sauce or an earthy porcini mushroom cream one.
The most expensive menu item is still less than $25: a traditional duck à l'orange that is worth the wait. But the chicken cordon bleu is a better option and one of the best we've sampled: a plump chicken breast rolled in smoked ham and Swiss cheese, then panko-breaded and topped with a nutmeg-spiked béchamel.
Unlike other French restaurants that offer a touch of haughty finesse, Le Comptoir's café-style setting also makes for a personable, family-friendly outing. A kids' meal will get you a full spread with chicken or fish nuggets, fries, ice cream, and a drink for $5.
If the rich fare doesn't do you in, it's safe to say no meal is complete without a taste of Céline's fresh jam crepes. Each thin, sweet pancake is folded over a mound of fresh fruit preserves and topped with whipped cream and powdered sugar. The crepes are the real gold here, the right balance of doughy and chewy, with butter-seared edges griddled to a crisp.
"When you dine here, it's like coming to my home," says Céline. "You're going to get everything to order, and your dish will get all my attention. Some things are worth the wait."