L'Auberge des Artistes hits the high notes

Classical symphony

click to enlarge SIMPLY PERFECT: Chef Christopher Poix's scallops are expertly cooked. - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
SIMPLY PERFECT: Chef Christopher Poix's scallops are expertly cooked.

It's almost as if the French defined Western cuisine. I'm not talking about the Gallic contribution to foundational sauces or iconic dishes; I'm thinking formality and informality. Go to a brasserie and you'll find lively energy and casual comfort, with either an urban modernity or neighborhood feel, depending on the location. Head more high-end, though, and the French can corner the market on elegance.

L'Auberge des Artistes is of the latter sort, a palace of classic French cuisine with a setting to match the food. In the former home of La Cachette in downtown Clearwater, the waitstaff is decked out in formal attire, pressed and precise. The dining room is similarly attired, with richly patterned carpeting, subdued paintings and table settings that will force you to recall early childhood lessons in proper dining etiquette. Which is the escargot fork again?

But that's likely what you're looking for when you dine at a place like Artistes. The restaurant fulfills your expectations there, just as it will likely fulfill your expectations when it comes to the food you eat and the check at the end of the meal. Both are decidedly, and expectedly, high-end.

Chef and owner Christopher Poix is a seasoned vet of the hardcore classic French cuisine scene, with a stint at the Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, internships at Michelin 3-star restaurants, and time spent moving up the intense kitchen ladder at places owned by Alain Ducasse. Recently, he's worked his way around Florida, until settling into his own place in Clearwater.

The menu at Artistes is like a lesson in French cuisine, each dish constructed from exceptional ingredients, often seemingly simply prepared, and usually with a defining sauce that ties the disparate parts together. The secret to this kind of cooking is the time it takes in the back of the house.

Like the restaurant's house-cured salmon gravlax. The thin slices of bright orange fish are layered on the plate and topped by a few sizable chunks of pristine white crab meat, with strands of dill providing a touch of green. It's exquisite in its parts, but the real beauty comes when you dip into the discrete areas dotted by Poix's lemon cream, rich enough for the salmon but subtle enough to accent the crab.

Poix's scallops are just about perfect, crisply seared a golden brown on the outside, but barely heated through the center, and his salad is topped by a simple disc of foie gras with a perfect crust that barely contains the nigh-liquid decadence inside.

Entrees at Artistes include the same degree of precision in the kitchen, but somehow come across as less exciting in the eating, perhaps because they are more familiar. Poix's duck breast is stunning, crisp, medium-rare and ideally seasoned, but is overwhelmed by the sweet and fruity reduction alongside. His filet Rossini is impeccable, the meat fork-tender and topped with more of that foie gras, but the mushrooms and haricots verts seem more throwaway asides than integral parts of the dish.

That said, I would happily order either entree again — I just feel the need to pick some nits from dishes that come with a greater than $30 price tag, especially when they follow appetizers that flirt more with $20 than $10. Artistes' wine list is the one exception to the serious high-end pricing, with a bevy of reasonably priced options from France, California and Oregon that practically beg you to do dinner correctly by matching wine with Poix's food. It's also refreshingly free of the overblown and overpriced big-name French estates that bog down many upscale French restaurants.

Dessert shows the same reliance on classics that you'll find on the rest of the menu, with creme brulee, a chocolate ganache and an apple tart tatin. They are largely executed well, if without the same precision shown in the savory dishes.

I hesitate to label L'Auberge des Artistes a special-occasion restaurant, but the formality, price and style of food fit that pigeonhole nicely for everyone who doesn't routinely spend $100 a person on dinner. That said, forget about anniversaries, birthdays and graduations — sometimes eating great French food can be its own special occasion.

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