Clearwater copy: La Petite Brasserie is a faithful, if not exciting, rendition of the original

The menu may be duplicated, but the food is a rougher copy of the original. It’s all tasty and competently executed, but without some of the polish and grace of the original. Like a croque monsieur piled high with sliced ham that’s still frigid in the center, or frites that come to the table noticeably limp, not quite cooked through.

Soups are still beautiful, however, especially a deceptively simple creamy special of white cheddar and cauliflower. Lamb chops are grilled to an ideal medium-rare, lightly seasoned to encourage frequent dredging through the flavorful demi-glace on the side.

La Petite’s seafood paella could use more oomph, but generous bits of sauteed chorizo go a long way toward accenting the massive shrimp and tender mussels scattered around the yellow rice.

Sides — once you discount the fries — are one of La Petite’s humble glories, just like at the original Brasserie. There are luscious mashed potatoes, braised cabbage and charred brussels sprouts tossed with garlic. The mac and cheese is astounding, hearty al dente pasta coated in a sauce that’s almost too rich, almost too cheesy. Almost.

Desserts rely heavily on the cakes made next door at Peace Love and Cake, with almost a half-dozen of the towering goodies arrayed in full view of the dining room, layered with everything from chocolate and strawberries to intensely moist raspberry puree.

Good cake, but those desserts come across as another symptom of what makes La Petite a bit more, well, petite than the location in St. Pete. The details and technique are less polished and exacting, the food less flavorful, all packing considerably less impact compared to that found at the home base.

It’s not an uncommon problem for restaurants that try to branch out, particularly restaurants that rely more on the passion of a chef — like St. Pete Brasserie’s J. Ward — than on recipes that can be shipped and replicated by less talented cooks in far-flung locales.

Think of la Petite Brassserie as a cover song, faithfully rendered to mimic the source material and well worth a listen, but without the soul of the original.

For anyone familiar with the original, the food is just as comforting, but less polished.

La Petite Brasserie

2245 Nursery Road, Clearwater, 727-330-7546,

3 stars

Call it a social media triumph. Six months ago, Andrew “Wilko” Wilkins put out a plea for help in what is coming to be a fairly common form — a Facebook post that told fans of his St. Pete Brasserie that the restaurant was teetering on the precipice. After a profitable winter and spring, the Brasserie was struggling to make it through summer doldrums accentuated by the down economy.

He hoped that an influx of customers would help him stay afloat long enough to line up some funding options. “There was too much to pay off from the old restaurant,” he told me at the time. “It’s not massive money — it’s peanuts, really — but peanuts to me, well …”

The plea worked, better than he could have hoped. Not only did loyal customers who had grown to love the Brasserie’s take on classic French comfort food show up in droves to do their part to help the restaurant’s cash flow, he also attracted a few new partners. And, just six months later, not only had Wilko saved St. Pete Brasserie, he’d managed to open an offshoot location up north called La Petite Brasserie.

“I got a couple of investors involved in the restaurant,” says Wilko. “We found this superhero place in Clearwater, ridiculous price, couldn’t turn it down.”

Problem is, few things in the uncertain restaurant industry turn out to be unalloyed slam dunks. The investors had to put in more money than predicted, and Wilko found himself the manager of St. Pete Brasserie instead of the owner of two restaurants. And the expansion into Clearwater has been a bit more difficult than his earlier exuberance promised.

One reason may be the location — “superhero” is too strong a word, despite the "ridiculous price." La Petite Brasserie is tucked into a small strip mall slightly off the beaten path, between a Domino’s Pizza and a cake shop, no match for the original’s prime Central Avenue spot.

Inside, though, it’s gorgeous, designed from the ground up to reflect the brasserie feel in a way that the original location never was. Rich wood tones, cozy accents and a long mantle perfect to hold the cakes the restaurant serves for dessert.

And for anyone who is familiar with the original location, the menu is just as comforting. That means the decadent Alsacien onion tart is there in all its rich glory, along with steak frites, salmon mousse, moules gratinee and most of the rest of the St. Pete location’s hearty Gaullic cuisine.

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