Largo’s joie de vivre

Cafe Largo may have room for improvement, but it’s definitely worth a visit.

click to enlarge AUSPICIOUS & DELICIOUS: Cafe Largo’s pâté appetizer plate makes for a smashing start. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
AUSPICIOUS & DELICIOUS: Cafe Largo’s pâté appetizer plate makes for a smashing start.

When a frequent dining companion mentions that some colleagues are raving about a charming French restaurant in Largo, I say count me in. But, as I do some web research to assess the foodie buzz and determine Cafe Largo’s must-have dishes, I am puzzled. The major hubbub is around a decade old. How did Cafe Largo fall off the radar? From my experience at the table with a group that includes an honest-to-God born-and-bred Frenchman, the answer may be inconsistent results. For every sigh-inducing bite — and there are quite a few — there are also countervailing dishes that just don’t come together.

Cafe Largo is worth a visit. I’d just like to see every dish soar like chef Dominique Christini’s greatest hits.

The pâté appetizer plate is delightful, with a delicious tranche of pâté de campagne, a creamy pork rillette, and luscious spreadable pâté de foie with briny cornichons, mustard and crisp, toasted bread that makes for a smashing start.

Even better is the sautéed foie gras. This luxury ingredient always comes at a premium — in this case $26 — but I’ve never had as perfectly cooked and as generous a portion. Usually a single slice is handsomely plated, e.g. atop a thick slice of toasted brioche to absorb every drop of succulent juice, with some kind of sweet fruit or chutney to complement the fattiness of the duck liver. The presentation at Cafe Largo is decidedly rustic, with just a few soft caramelized apples slices and a sauce of the emulsified pan fat. The “slice” is actually triple the normal serving, with some less elegant smaller pieces, but each bite is perfectly creamy. There is nothing like it.

Unfortunately, our other starters have a hard time getting out of the blocks. The portobello Napoleon with boursin, topped with a cabernet shallot glaze, sounds tempting, but arrives as a monochromatic blob that is slightly bitter and unappetizing. And the onion soup fails on every level that makes this dish soar. It’s served in a wide shallow bowl instead of the usual ramekin so that the bland broth is absolutely buried in a wide swath of cheese and filled with squishy croutons that overwhelm the dish. What should be a small delightful garnish in a stock bursting with deep beef flavor heightened by the sweet goodness of slowly caramelized, dark onions is as disappointing as the foie gras is thrilling.

In typical French bistro tradition, all guests get a salad of crisp mixed greens. Cafe Largo’s version adds what appears to be some sort of stewed green peppers and, for a small up-charge, an ample chunk from your choice of a trio of French cheese (Brie, chèvre, Roquefort). It’s fine, but has no extra touch to make it something special.

Among the entrees, the beef tenderloin topped with Roquefort is a true standout. The thick medallion of aged beef is perfectly seared with a nice exterior crust yielding to a juicy, pink interior that is just plain scrumptious. Fine, but less transporting, is the venison chop with a sweet and sour red cabbage that nicely balances the game meat. Green cabbage proves an apt accompaniment to galantine de pintade, an organic young French hen deboned except for the leg and roasted with a light white wine reduction. The dish is somewhat bland; I’d like to see some crispness or a boost in the seasoning to provide more punch.

The same is true for the snapper with white wine, onions, tomatoes with pasta. The fish is properly cooked, but overwhelmed by the pasta, and the dish just lacks zip. Seasonal vegetables accompany most entrees; we have a nice mix of crisp haricots vert, earthy fingerling potatoes, sweet carrot slices, and the hidden gem of root veggies, rutabaga chunks.

On the dessert front, the chocolate mousse is delightfully creamy with good flavor, but the accompanying profiterole seems stale. The caramelized fruit tart features glazed blueberries and raspberries, but the cake ends up just a bit soggy, which detracts from the overall effect.

Christini is obviously a skilled chef, but so much exciting has happened in recent years in French cuisine that the overall impression is disappointingly old-fashioned. The service is attentive, but sometimes seems to be trying too hard instead of appearing effortless, and the final touch of assuring that “the ladies” exit with a single rose seems from another era.

NEXT WEEK: Bamboozle Tea Lounge

About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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