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Friday, February 15, 2013

Simple French cuisine in Winter Park

     Even though I have yet to visit, I am a Parisian at heart.  I love the French excellence in all its forms – fashion, food, their ideal of what beauty should be, etc.  I always have and always will.  Through my quest of all true things French, I have discovered it is not easy to find true representations of the French savoir faire outside of France.  This is especially true in what concerns food, and especially here in America.  Some ingredients readily available in France are impossible to find in the United States – such as true fresh cream and butter, bread that does not contain any preservatives, etc.  This makes it, to a certain point, impossible for French chefs to cook like they would at home.

     But during one of my strolls through Park Avenue in the neighborhood of Winter Park, I came across the Café de France.  This jewel of a restaurant was opened in 1982, and after over three decades, it continues to delight the locals with its quaint, yet distinguished, French cuisine.  The place has but a few tables, and the décor is reminiscent of the famous bistros in France, with prints of them on its walls – such as the Café de Flore, Le Napoleon et al.

     I came in and sat down to a simple table covered in a white linen cloth and a single rose (it was Valentine’s Day after all).  The waiter came after a minute or two and provided me with a menu that immediately denoted I was inside a true French restaurant – only a few dishes but classic and with simple ingredients.  This could only be good.  I was going to order the comforting coq au vin (being a rainy, sort of chilly day and all), but the waiter recommended the special of the day, seafood crêpe.  My instincts told me this was a place of knowledgeable waiters, so I went with his suggestion and ordered a glass of fruity rosé to go with it.

     While I waited for my order I visited the toilet.  For one, I always like to wash my hands before eating, but from my table I could also see that if I did so, I could get a good peak into the kitchen.  And I’m very glad I did.  It had a look of a country, yet professional cooking space, small but with all that is necessary accoutrements to make it impeccably efficient, yet cozy; a place where a chef would look forward to coming to work every day.  The fact that I got an invitation to go into it for sure next time I visit can only increase my confidence in what I would see happening in it.

     The seafood crêpe was heaven.  I could taste every single piece of fish inside it and the silky Mornay sauce enveloped the filling beautifully.  Scallions were added as a garnish, just sautéed, which rounded the flavours without overpowering them.

     For dessert I let the waiter choose for me as well.  Again, it was a wise decision.  The chocolate trio provided the much needed chocolate element for the day in question, with a foamy but not at all soggy chocolate mousse, espresso ice-cream – which was not melted when it got to my table, thank God (I HATE melted ice-cream) – and a tiny espresso.  

    The warm days of Spring offered an opportunity to taste a unique delicacy - steak tartare.  The origin of this dish goes back to the Mongolian hordes, who used to spend most of their lives on horseback.  As they went along pillaging from village to village, the soldiers of Genghis Khan carried chopped raw meat in their saddles in order to tenderize it.  After several hours of "grinding", it was quickly seasoned and eaten raw.  The French version tops the heap with a raw egg yolk, providing for a hearty dish.

     Although some people may have reservations about eating raw meat and raw egg all at once, I'm certainly not one of them.  As long as one is using quality product, like the best rib-eye, grass fed one can find and farm fresh eggs, there is absolutely no problem.  We must also remember that meat, especially when grilled, shouldn't really be cooked too much.  At Café de France, the dish is accompanied by crusty baguette slices, slightly grilled (heaven!) and paillés frites, the thinnest of French fries.  A light Beaujolais or a fruity Côtes du Rhône will pair beautifully with this rich dish.

     A light dessert was all that was needed after the the hearty steak.  A selection of sorbets both aided digestion and cleansed the palate.

Sorbet flavours from top, then right: mango, lemon and strawberry

    The service was superb, both friendly and personalized and I commend the use of the freshest of ingredients in a restaurant that has remained incorruptible for over three decades.

     A third visit to Café de France proved average, although no less enticing.  It was Saturday night and the place was quite busy.  I ordered guyères as a starter.  These are basically savory profiteroles which are offered as an "amuse bouche" with an apéritif.  They are made with gruyère cheese and are quite addictive.  Café de France serves them with crème fraîche seasoned with sea salt and freshly ground pepper.  One spoons it into the guyère and pops it into the mouth.  The savory combination bursts into the palate and definitely opens up the appetite.  Ideal to accompany with a glass of champagne.

     The main course I chose was - finally, the Coq au vin, a dish I've always wanted to try.  It was a very chilly evening, and this dish, which Café de France chooses to serve with a slab of mashed potatoes, did wonderfully its work of warming me up.  The pieces of chicken were tender and pulled apart from the bone.  They were not reddish on the inside, so I'm not sure they were marinated enough time in the wine, but the dish was tasty nonetheless.

     Last but not least, the dessert was another classic, Tarte Tatin, served with homemade vanilla ice-cream.  Of the ice-cream all I can say is that my homemade vanilla ice-cream tastes better.  I can see the speckles of vanilla when I make it and, since I use only pasteurized cream (and not ultra-pasteurized), it tastes very natural and light.  Café de France's wasn't bad, but I feel they should've done better.  As far as the tarte, I was hoping for a base of pâte briseé instead of millefeuille, and a more homogeneous dessert.  Still not bad, but could've been better.  

     Regardless, I hold Café de France as one of Orlando's best restaurants and one of my favorites, where I can see myself coming again and again.  It's good food, cooked like one would at home but with a refined twist, which makes it worthy of coming to this restaurant.  Reservations, especially on weekends, are highly recommended.


  1. As I read your blog I can invision myself walking in your shoes. I truly hope you have the opportunity to visit the kitchen and let us know of your experience. I have made a note to self to visit and I hope my experience will be just as great as yours...

    1. Thank you for your kind words. Will keep you updated on my next visit for sure with another blog post