French with tears

Can a classy St. Pete eatery translate to a strip mall in north Tampa?

click to enlarge PRETTY IN RED: Chateau France Carrollwood totally remodeled the space formerly occupied by Opium. - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
PRETTY IN RED: Chateau France Carrollwood totally remodeled the space formerly occupied by Opium.

I reviewed the flagship Chateau France in St. Petersburg almost two years ago. Gushed about the place. My night at that restaurant was one of the best dining experiences I've had on the Gulf Coast. The place is a Bay area icon, the food, atmosphere and service creating a fantastic synergy of classic French cuisine that is seriously lacking in our little corner of the world.

Then Chateau France opened an outpost in Carrollwood. I was surprised. Skeptical, even. I put it on the back burner and waited to see if this suburban Chateau would last. When I heard of a third iteration just weeks from opening its doors on South Howard, I figured no more dilly-dallying: time to see how chef/owner Antoine Louro can translate the unique experience he created in an old house in downtown St. Petersburg onto a Dale Mabry strip mall or trendy block of SoHo.

Turns out — at least when it comes to the Carrollwood version — he can't. Not even close.

Not that the place isn't pretty. This same space was home to the occasionally exciting, occasionally broken food of Opium, which closed early last year. Totally remodeled, the new dining room has strong red accents, beautiful decor and the trademark dim lighting of the original Chateau France.

If you're familiar with the food at the St. Pete location, though, you won't need extra illumination. Both places feature the same menu, but the preparation doesn't compare.

Maybe it's the classic bugaboo of chain dining, even local chains: taking shortcuts to success. Recipes get standardized, simplified and systematized to make it easier for food to be the same across the mini-empire. That's largely acceptable — even preferable — at your typical family eatery. It doesn't work with classic French cuisine.

In St. Pete, the tartare was sublime. Assembled tableside, the filet was shredded by wooden spoons and mixed with capers and shallots, mustard and pepper. Here on Dale Mabry, the tartare ($18) comes from the kitchen already mixed and well nigh tasteless. The meat itself is exceptionally tender, but the flavor is demolished by powerful chunky onions and a complete lack of seasoning. There are capers, but they are meek things incapable of adding an iota of excitement to the dish.

Lobster soup ($15) in the new joint has none of the depth or elegance of the same stuff in St. Pete. One of the best dishes I have ever eaten in the Bay area — Chateau France's cassoulet de la mer ($35) — is so astoundingly different from the last time I ate it (in St. Pete, of course) that I begin to harbor suspicions. Instead of tender beans and chunks of seafood in a delicate sauce of lobster stock and cream, this is a giant bowl filled with featureless liquid — probably a pint or more — hiding unseasoned seafood and a few white beans.

There are more problems: Free range Australian filet ($39) is tasty but has no sear to speak of, and the sauce tastes like the same bland liquid used in the cassoulet, lobster soup and sea bass. That sea bass ($28) is cooked right, but has a dense and slightly tough texture. Our server convinced each of us to get a house salad, which turns out to be one of the best things on the table, albeit at an astounding $10 apiece. Homemade pâté ($18)? Tastes just like the D'Artagnan truffled mousse I buy at my local gourmet takeout.

Did they change the recipes back at home base as well or just in this spin-off? Let's take time out for an investigative phone call.

According to Louro, gifted chef and fine-dining magnate, the answer is no. "My food doesn't change," he says, "and this place runs very much without me."

Maybe, but even he agrees that expansion brings its problems. Louro spends most of his days at the new location, although not the night I visited. The crux of the problem? "You're in the fine dining business; you need to be there every day." That's a problem when you have three locations and just one suave Frenchman.

Louro says that when he's on hand, there is classic tableside service of the tartare, crepes and other dishes. When he's not, well, the staff isn't up to the challenge. "Finding servers in Tampa is a nightmare," he confides. Apparently. We ask about the cheese plate and our server tells us that it includes five varieties, but he'll have to check the kitchen to find out exactly what they are. On his return, he tell us there are four. When the plate eventually arrives, there are three — a bland brie, decent if innocuous blue cheese and manchego. I could make the same plate after a five-minute trip to Publix.

I would probably cut Chateau France Carrollwood some slack if it weren't so damn expensive. The seafood is all ideally cooked and none of the dishes is terrible. But when you're charging these outlandish prices, "not terrible" isn't really the experience a diner is looking for. On this night, three of us spend (on appetizer, salad, entree and dessert) about $300. And that's without wine.

Which is another concern. The wine list is distinctly lacking in value, with overblown pricing that is especially egregious when it comes to the "less" expensive selections. When you've already committed to spending this kind of loot on a night of hopefully justifiable decadence, wine priced at three or more times retail is annoying but acceptable. With humdrum cuisine like this, though, it feels like a mugger who takes your pants along with your wallet.

In 2005, I walked out of Chateau France St. Pete with a full belly, an empty wallet and a peaceful soul. Tonight, all I've got are turned-out pockets and disappointment.

For now, I'm going to continue to give the St. Pete location the benefit of the doubt. I'm at least leery about the new SoHo location.

The exceptional experiences I've had at the flagship — and the huge respect I have for Louro — are now filtered through this second-class doppelganger crouching in Carrollwood.

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Creative Loafing food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

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