Dinner for few

This time of year, dining at the beach can be a personal experience

click to enlarge PRETTY IN PINK: Café De France straddles the line between casual and posh. - Valerie Troyano
Valerie Troyano
PRETTY IN PINK: Café De France straddles the line between casual and posh.

Weekends at Madeira Beach can be a little eerie this time of year. There are still a few vacationing Canadians and lazing locals to fill out the pasty-legged beachcomber quota during the day, but the nights are positively bereft of activity. Few lights twinkle in the windows of the Gulf-front condos, fewer lights cruise by on Gulf Boulevard and the parking lots are empty. No reservations necessary. I love the off-season.

We arrive at Café De France a couple of nights before owner/chef Frederic Herodet closes the place for a few weeks of vacation (Don’t worry. By the time this sees print, the restaurant will be open again.) Makes sense, considering that more than half the people here tonight are at my table, even if you count our lovely hostess/server. This time of year, dining at the beach is a very personal experience — lots of one-on-one time with the waitstaff and usually the only people in the kitchen are the chef and a dishwasher. Maybe a dishwasher.

With the closing of Le Bordeaux, mainland Tampa lacks much in the way of French cuisine, but the peninsula has a lot to offer. From the country comforts of places like La Cachette in Indian Rocks, to the elegant culinary stylings of Chateau France in downtown St. Pete, along with several other respectable outlets, French food is well represented near the water. Café De France straddles the line between the casual and the posh. It’s just the thing to attract tourists and snowbirds staying across the street in beachfront digs.

The first dish to the table — Herodet’s lobster and crab bisque ($7) — is a perfect example of good soup gone bland. The rich, creamy liquid is more about the bisque than the shellfish, so even the tiny splash of sherry overpowers the meager sea flavor, leaving me with a bowl of seasoned heavy cream.

Thankfully, two excellent salads save us from our milky fate. The Roquefort ($7) is chock full of its namesake blue cheese, as well as creamy dollops of tart chevre. This fatty and pungent mix is tempered by bright fresh greens and slightly bitter vinaigrette laced with hazelnut oil that cuts through the rich cheeses. Thin pieces of smoked fish stripe the top of the Neptune salad ($9), along with shreds of fresh crab and the tart blast of briny capers and citrus.

Frog legs ($9) are quintessentially French, and Café De France’s version is classic. Dusted with flour and quickly sautéed, the V-shaped amphibian hindquarters glisten with garlic-infused butter, individual muscles distinct against the long bones. And no, they don’t taste like chicken. They taste like frog. Frog tastes good. In the absence of a turkey carcass, though, frog legs make good wishbones, and we take advantage of the empty dining room to pull a few apart with our bare hands. I wish for world peace.

I should have wished for better pate. Café De France’s homemade country pate ($6) is a meaty construction akin to dense sausage that lacks some of the light grace necessary even in the most rustic pates. One of my companions finishes the porky puck, but it took a lot of chewing.

We take a smoke break on Café De France’s parking lot patio, overlooking a giant new condo development across Gulf Boulevard that will undoubtedly be a big boon for Mr. Herodet, and grumble about how we could have lit up at the table in the chef’s homeland. I don’t miss the dreary haze of smoke that drifted through many restaurants in the good old days, and I have theoretically quit smoking. I guess I just miss the option.

We arrive back at the table in time for our entrees. On one plate, gooey melted brie languishes atop thick medallions of seared pork tenderloin ($16), each set in a puddle of deep red. The raspberry sauce is bright and sweet, and lends life to the lean pork and mild cheese. More fruity liquid douses sliced duck breast ($17), this time a combination of orange and a hefty dose of triple sec to make traditional duck à l’orange. The pink fowl is luscious — the skin crisp, the sauce bright and just barely sweet.

A grouper filet ($26, as part of a four-course tasting menu), although slightly overcooked, is paired with a lemon buerre blanc that works perfectly with the mild white flesh. All of the entrees come with pommes gratin, a cheesy disc of layered potatoes that is de rigueur at French restaurants of all caliber. Herodet’s version is tender and creamy, with a hint of garlic in the background.

I look forward to dessert at French restaurants more than at the typical eclectic American places. It’s almost always the same — chocolate mousse, apple tart, crème brulee, maybe a soufflé — but French chefs seem to take just as much pride in desserts as in the rest of the dinner, if not more. For a lot of American chefs, desserts are an afterthought.

Herodet’s chocolate mousse ($5) is silky smooth, with the mild flavor and pale color of milk chocolate. Crème brulee ($5) is so ubiquitous these days it barely registers on my senses, but his has the crisp crust and eggy richness of the good ones. Doused in a mass of warm chocolate sauce and stuffed with vanilla ice cream, the puff pastry profiteroles ($6) amounts to a big bowl of mushy sweet goodness. Not a masterpiece, but good eatin’ nonetheless.

That defines the typical Café De France experience. No pretensions to greatness, just honest French fine dining with a touch of casual familiarity.

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected] Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.