We watched Veronique Leroux put together lunch from our table in the rear garden at Le Patio in Wilton Manors. There were no other people eating outside besides my partner and me, so Leroux had propped the back door open to give us a view inside the petite restaurant, no larger than an ordinary hallway.
Her kitchen — if you can call it that — is maybe three by six feet, and most of that is counter space filled with toaster ovens, plates, and a microwave. Because it's little more than a glorified prep station, Leroux and her partner, Jean Doherty, do most of the actual cooking off-site, in the mornings before lunch service and again before dinner. The two of them have been cooking this way since they opened what they call "the tiniest, cutest restaurant in South Florida" late last year.
Leroux, a sturdy woman with a warm smile, squats to reach a minifridge below the countertop and produces a number of tight-lidded containers: blanched haricots verts, leafy greens, a mustard-based vinaigrette. On slices of fresh baguette go generous portions of goat cheese sprinkled with a flash of herbs de Provence (savory, fennel, thyme, basil, and lavender). The pieces are popped in the toaster oven to bubble and brown; when they're done, they find their way atop the dressed greens and onto our table in the breezy back patio, along with a glass of deep-red pinot noir and the inescapable feeling that here, in this quiet corner just a block removed from Wilton Drive, the world rotates just a little bit slower than anywhere else.
The part of French cookery that intrigues me the most is not the technique; it's what happens afterward. France is filled with tiny cafés just like Le Patio, places where people stop for a glass of wine and a nibble of home-cooked pâté and linger for hours. In those borrowed seats, watching traffic scoot along slowly, the food is almost secondary. Somewhere amid the coq au vin and the braised lamb shank is the idea that whatever is going on out there doesn't matter. No matter how pressing your responsibilities are, they'll still be there in an hour or two, or whenever it is you're good and ready to take them on.
What Leroux and Doherty have done in this, their second South Florida restaurant, is bring that experience home. Leroux is originally from the South of France, Doherty from Dublin. Their outfit before Le Patio, Fort Lauderdale's Sugar 'n' Spice Café, was a precursor to this restaurant — peasant-style French food served in a charming, slow-paced setting. In moving to the smaller, infinitely more challenging space that is Le Patio, the pair seem to be giving themselves up to that notion completely. No, there's not nearly as much street traffic — but there's also an absence of noise, multitudes of competing restaurants, and the nagging presence of outsized bills stomping on their modest dreams. It's almost as if, with Le Patio, Leroux and Doherty are finally saying "Screw it. We're going to do this our way." And their way works just fine.
Much of the menu is carried over from Sugar 'n' Spice — that fabulous, light goat-cheese salad ($11.95); baked tomatoes à la Provençal topped with bread crumbs and olive oil ($6.50); and "Vero's Very Famous Gratin Macaroni," a dish of noodles draped in béchamel, Swiss cheese, and pure love ($6.50). To call their dishes comfort food would be appropriate. But it would also suggest somehow that it's only the food that's doing the comforting.
I say this because having lunch on the back patio at Le Patio, among vintage tin French beer signs and at tables made from old New Orleans sewing machines, just might be my favorite hobby. Other than the view of the miniature kitchen, I could barely tell you what the inside of the restaurant looks like. Maybe it's the cool spring breeze washing over that gravel-paved back stoop, but give me a glass of wine and a loaf of French bread and there's nothing that could pry me from one of those whimsical, mismatched leopard-print chairs.
While my partner dug into her salad, Leroux brought me a hearty bowl of boeuf bourguignon ($12.95) that came atop a black floor tile serving as a cafeteria tray. Inside the dish were chunks of slow-stewed beef, the flavors coaxed into a sauce of stock and red wine and paired with button mushrooms, sweet pearl onions, and a side of homey egg noodles. The workmanlike lunch was just what I needed on that cold day, perfect to keep me planted at that table wasting away the afternoon for hours.
On another visit, my fiancée, Danielle, and I brought my parents to Le Patio and sat at an equally idyllic table out front along with my parents' dog, a golden retriever named Lizzy. Leroux, pulling double duty as server and cook, brought us bowls of her sublime French onion soup ($4.50), a light but flavorful beef broth filled with caramelized onions and topped with a few housemade croutons and bubbly melted cheese. I, meanwhile, ate spoonfuls of the soup du jour ($3.25), a smooth blend of tomato and basil that was the perfect pitch of tart and sweet. Leroux brought out a bowl of water for Lizzy to enjoy along with us. She didn't seem to mind that the dog barked and whined at nearly every passing biker/Rollerblader/power walker.
Le Patio also bills itself as a wine bar, with inexpensive glasses of reds and whites and a few more select bottles on special each day. I never once ordered a wine by name there, though. Each time I asked for a glass, Leroux recounted a list of varietals in her thick French accent — Merlot, pinot noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay. When she brought back a glass (each $5 or less), it was always tasty stuff, and each subsequent pour seemed a little fuller than the last.
My favorite pairing that day: crisp, citrusy Sauvignon Blanc with the salty-sweet flavor of orange baby clams baked with garlic and herbs ($6.50). The succulent shellfish came in a little blue crock with a tight-fitting lid, and opening it up was like receiving a present from a friend. I slathered the bread-crumb-imbued clams across slices of fresh-baked French bread and reserved a few slices for a trio of homemade pâtés my father ordered ($6.50). Like the clams, his meal was plated on a cutesy dish, this time a ceramic duck holding a supply of pork, duck, and chicken pâté along with tart cornichons and a mound of spicy Dijon mustard. Each of the pâtés was smooth and rich. But the slightly chunky pork pâté larded with bits of tasty pork fat was easily my favorite.
Another hit: Danielle's manicotti au Provence ($12.95), delicate rolls of pasta filled with ricotta cheese and baked with a chunky tomato sauce flecked with French herbs. And a salad of fresh-sliced avocado and chicken breast draped with champagne vinaigrette was light, simple eating at its best ($11.95). We were too full that day, so I've yet to try Leroux's lasagna made with béchamel and mushrooms or the shepherd's pie topped with whipped potatoes ($13.95).
As we finished our meals, Danielle hopped inside to check out the interior we'd been missing. "There's a hunky picture of Brad Pitt hanging on the wall," she said with a grin. It was right there next to a dozen or so other random, artsy-looking pictures of sculpted bods and black-and-white shots. All the more reason for her to come back, I guess. For me, I can't take my eyes off the patio. It's just too gorgeous — the perfect place to put life on hold.