But about this time each year, I develop a craving for breakfasts of fresh baguettes smeared with sublime, sweet-sour French butter, and big cups of café au lait. I want homemade patés, artisanal cheeses, handmade chocolates. I've been yearning for the atmosphere of Paris without the expense and the insults. So I recently moseyed over to Le Café de Paris on Las Olas, the oldest French restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, to see if I could conjure up a bit of je ne sais quoi.
Both Le Café de Paris and its sister entity, the more upscale French Quarter just around the corner, are owned by the Swiss-born Louis Flematti. The former opened in 1962 as a small bistro and expanded over the years into two large rooms, an upstairs lounge, and an outdoor patio. Chef Andreas Hebegger has been in the kitchen at Le Café de Paris going on ten years. The place is decorated like a stage set -- somebody's kitschy idea of a Parisian café, replete with Francophilic clichés: a black cat with its back arched, faux windows spilling flower boxes, cheesy striped awnings, fake gaslights, exposed brick, and Edith Piaf singing "La Vie en Rose" on a loop. On weekends, the outdoor patio is crowded with young couples eating oysters Rockefeller and smoking cigars; the interior rooms are busy with families and middle-aged locals. I don't object to the musty décor, to the fraying tablecloths, or the nicked-up flatware. If a place survives 43 years in downtown Fort Lauderdale, it must be because the food is magnifique.
At least, that was the theory that on a recent Friday evening propelled me and my spouse there, where we almost immediately found ourselves examining inexplicable burns on the plastic-encased menu. It's quite a menu -- running the gamut from crepes, pastas ($13.95 to $15.95), and steak tartare ($9.95) to fillet of snapper Louisianne ($20.95); from bouillabaisse Floridienne ($22.95) to imported Dover sole Meuniere ($28.95); from veal cordon bleu ($20.95) to Chateaubriand bouquetiere for two ($62). Steak Dianne ($27.95) or filet au poivre noir will be flambéed tableside in cognac. It sounds like authentic, '50s-style haute cuisine, the kind of stuff Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart might have ordered from New York's 21 Club, which to this day serves a similar menu, right down to the steak tartare.
There's also a Celebration Dinner for two ($72), which includes a bottle of wine and your choice of entrées, like beef Wellington or duck aux fruits. These prices are comparable to most upscale local restaurants (although the seafood crepe and mussels in cream are more expensive over at the French Quarter). Give me an excellent plate of veal sweetbreads aux champignon ($22.95) and I'm willing to shell out the dough and overlook a few chips in the stoneware.
"Sit still; we're not going anywhere," I told my significant other. She'd taken one bite of the braided baguette at Café de Paris and was ready to bolt. She claims the breadbasket tells you everything you need to know about a restaurant. And the one on our table contained Nabisco bread sticks in plastic wrappers and a pale loaf with the taste and texture of a bag of pre-frozen cotton balls. Bread is the foundation of a good meal and of a just society (historians credit a baguette shortage with launching the French Revolution). Nobody with an ounce of Gallic spirit could dish up such an insipid loaf.
Our waiter came rushing over mumbling something. It wasn't, apparently, "Can I answer any questions about the menu?" or "Welcome, mesdames, to our fine establishment." Judging from his look of impatience, I guessed he'd said, "Are you ready to order?"
We were. I requested the frog legs Provençal ($22.95), cooked in garlic and butter and billed as "fresh from the Everglades." Ms. A requested the beef Wellington, "baked in pastry crust, duxelle, sauce on the side" ($28.95). And we ordered a round of appetizers: gratinéed onion soup ($5.95), escargots bourguignon ($6), paté de chef ($5.50).
The onion soup gratinée was edible but underfinessed. OK, I'm spoiled -- I make onion soup from Julia Child's unbeatable recipe: onions cooked so slowly you want to howl with impatience, good wine, cognac, beef stock, and a crouton at the bottom of the bowl slathered with butter and fresh herbs. I don't ask every restaurant to go to such trouble and expense, but I still like to be mildly intoxicated, not just oversalted. This soup had the blahs. The escargots bourguignon were special: We'd never seen snails so shriveled, burnt, and rubbery or tasted garlic so insistent. If there was any actual bourguignon anywhere to be found, we missed it. As for the paté de chef, I'd already lost my faith in said chef, and could only think of packaged lunch meats as I sliced off each bite, trying not to imagine what leftovers had been pressed into its service. And I resented not having a piece of decent bread or even a cornichon to add a flicker of interest.
Take it away! A couple of backup servers cleared plates and refilled water glasses (the second-tier servers were much more gracious). I watched our waiter fillet a sole at the next table. After he'd finished, he swiped up empty glasses and used flatware and dumped them unceremoniously on top of the fish carcass on his cart, still parked next to his customers. If he'd said, "I spit on you and your lousy fillet of sole," his performance couldn't have been surlier.
"Why do they hate us here?" my companion wondered aloud. "Nonsense," I said. "They couldn't possibly. Look how nice we are."
But I was having misgivings. Was frog legs Provençal a wise order? Were they really "fresh" from the Everglades? How many customers had ordered the frogs this week? Still, would I honestly be better off with the oysters or the beef tongue, sweet breads, creamed herring, steak tartare? All of which were starting to look like ticking time bombs? I swallowed hard.
Our entrées came, in a sense, as a relief. Those frog legs were fresh enough. They weren't the fattest little suckers I'd ever seen, but I'd have been willing to nibble every tender little morsel of white meat off those babies if I hadn't been prevented. Yes, prevented! Oh là, là! What depths has a kitchen sunk to when it no longer has the will to chop and sautée its own fresh garlic? What level of depravity could explain the use of old, bottled cloves? The sauce on those frog legs rendered them completely inedible. If someone had taken an entire Costco-sized can of prepped garlic and mashed it up with some Sysco butter substitute and then dumped the whole mess on my plate, it couldn't have been worse. Three bites and the taste of bottled garlic was all mine: I carried it with me for days, like an evil Siamese twin or a dual personality. That flavor evaded my every attempt to squelch it -- toothpaste, mouthwash, chocolate cookies, gin, sleeping pills; nothing could save me.
Meanwhile, Ms. A was working on her beef Wellington, a textbook example of how something ugly on the outside can contain a good heart. The beef itself was moist, rare, and buttery soft. The pastry, though, was despicably soggy, and the mushroom duxelle utterly lacked any flavor of mushrooms. This dish was a completely pointless exercise and, at $28.95, an expensive mistake.
The Wellington and the frog legs made us sad. Because nobody cared about those pitiful frogs or that miserable steer, they'd died in vain. The steer had breathed its last only to spend its final earthly moments wrapped in a sodden croute. I wondered what it would feel like to be a dead frog with a bunch of bottled garlic dumped on top of me -- this was blasphemy against the frog's essential and elemental froginess.
It seemed to me that it had been a long, long time since anybody in the kitchen at Café de Paris had taken pleasure in cooking. Or had given a damn about the exalted standards of French gastronomy from which these recipes originated. Somebody wheeled over a cart of homemade desserts, but we were too depressed to care.
Postscript: I did foray bravely back a few days later for lunch. My seafood crepe ($9.95; it's $15.95 on the dinner menu) wasn't as hideous as I'd feared, but neither did it restore my faith in this forsaken kitchen. The flavor was shrimpy and scallopy, not necessarily in a good way, the texture a little gritty. The crepe might have been delicious, but it was so thoroughly drowned in an uninteresting cream sauce and melted cheese that I couldn't tell. I ate about half of it and then had half of a tart with fruit ($4.95) that also was passable. But it had an off aftertaste, a mushy rather than crumbly crust, and a weird, clear cornstarch jelly holding the strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries together. There's a really easy recipe for an absurdly delicious berry tart (I know; I made it) in the July 6 issue of the New York Times. I wish somebody at Le Café de Paris would look it up and give it a whirl. A good fruit tart might restore their faith in la cuisine français.