Le Bouchon is a corker
[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
Braised lamb shanks, foreground, served with grilled polenta, green beans, roasted garlic and rosemary sauce; grilled country bread and burgundy shalot butter; and various tarts and desserts are among dishes at Le Bouchon.
By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 28, 2002
Too many restaurateurs in the past five years have tried to create bistros.
Relax, enjoy, savor. This casual bistro has some of the best French cooking around the Tampa Bay area - at any price.
It's about time we give a couple of Europeans a chance, and there are few better to give it a go locally than Peter Leonavicius and Dominique Christini, whom you may know from Cafe Largo, a veteran source of high-end French in mid-Pinellas.
And in their new place, Le Bouchon, they seem to have given us a genuine, decidedly French bistro, full of pates, good sausages and cheeses, ratatouille, steak frites, hearty stews, pretty pastries and modest vin. Indeed, it is named for that mundane object many of us love to see, the wine cork removed from the bottle.
Okay, it's not a pure bistro. Its lacks the dark, malingering warmth of many French bistros, and that's a good thing; this corner has been musty French long enough. The new owners have revamped the former La Tour Eiffel at great effort to give it a breezy, sunny feel more appropriate to Florida and Christini's Provencal roots.
And it's not Bistrot! quick as Cossacks insisted in Parisian bars two centuries ago (a demand met in France today more often by fast food). That, too, is to the good. Leonavicius takes the time to give us better than grab-and-go. His combination of advance gourmet preparation and cooking a la minute elevates coq au vin, for instance, to add a stuffed breast to the traditional long-simmered chicken and vegetables. Besides, the casual informality makes this an easy place to sit and talk, whether you're remembering Paris or your laundry list of Pinellas chores.
If French bankers and street sweepers can belly up to the zinc for a cafe au lait or a beer and find a pleasant place for an inexpensive sandwich, a lunch of crepes or a hearty beef stew, why shouldn't we have the same in our everyday lives, minus the Gauloise haze, of course?
Indeed, the level of cooking here is above many grab-and-go bistros on the continent and among the best French cooking around Tampa Bay at any level of price and pretension. Ultimately, this is French food for real people to enjoy, not to mummify or dissect.
Duck is boned, stuffed and roasted in a ballotine but served with red onions and smoked bacon, not cherries; the ribeye has a lush, fresh bearnaise and a shovel full of crisp, crunchy fries; both are under $15, including a salad of classy greens with a few beans and a very French vinaigrette of lemon and mustard.
Although the everyday menu is the core of bistros, they may have invented the blackboard special, too. At Le Bouchon, they are truly special, from the sublime to the lustful.
I hit the light fantastic with a refined seafood dinner of perfectly grilled shrimp with salmon wrapped around a salmon and seafood mousse, a suspension so delicate most other restaurants should be barred from using the term. Yet I've never had a more charmingly robust dinner than a sampler of saucisson and braised red cabbage in a deep dark sauce of wine and wild mushrooms. That's more than French for sausage; these were lusty sausage treats the chef was lucky to find -- slices of big beefy Toulouse, boudin, blanc and noir, and merguez. The last, made of lamb, wasn't as spicy as I expected, but the others were exciting, especially the boudin noir, bursting with the fragrance of the entire spice cabinet.
The greatest pleasure in a bistro may be in the smaller bites available to fill the nondinner hour, and Le Bouchon has many that would make a full lunch or any-time snacking.
You can have sandwiches, say saucisson and boursin, or salads with ratatouille or tomatoes with grilled onions or even pesto shrimp or chicken flambeed in Cognac. Crepes are lightly and properly made, but the meat filling I chose was too heavy; the braised beef needed longer cooking.
Appetizers provide a good lesson in a hard-to-learn bit of French: Pates and terrines may be difficult to make, but they are easy to eat and as convenient a snack as cold cuts. The Parisian pate is a slightly coarse grind, not too rich but flavorful and perfect with tiny pickles and French mustards; the terrine of duck stuffed with pistachios is great eating, hot or cold.
There's also pizza with fresh tomatoes, French sausage and brie on a crusty rustic dough, zesty stuff but I hope they'll also try some of the great pies from the south of France that are loaded with onions and anchovies. (The micette, the olive-topped bread of Provence, is a taste I have yet to acquire).
And what better small pleasure is there than true chocolate mousse, a thick swirl of intensely dark chocolate in a coffee cup garnished with fresh cream? There is no time of day you could not want one of these. Or need one.
That is why Le Bouchon is open all day with all manner of food and drink from a good espresso to simple wines from the Rhone and the south of France that a native would pick -- and sell for less than $20.
This will surely serve the tea-takers, the apres-tennis crowd and the boulevardiers of Indian Rocks Road well, but it is of greater value to ordinary folks seeking a spot of quiet and a solid taste of French food all day long.
That bistros are slowly disappearing in France is a shame. That we have got this one is great good fortune.
- 796 Indian Rocks Road
- Belleair Bluffs
- (727) 585-9777
- Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday
- Reservations: Suggested
- Credit cards: Most
- Details: Beer, wine; no smoking
- Special features: Baked goods, pastries to go.
- Price: $5.75 to $17.50
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