A new flavor
St. Bart's Island House, formerly Le Bordeaux, marks local chef Gordon Davis' shift from French chic to Carribean cool.
By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 15, 2002
SOHO -- When Gordon Davis opened Le Bordeaux Country French Restaurant, the southern end of Howard Avenue had seven restaurants and bars.
For filet mignon, diners went to Bern's Steak House. For beer they hit the Chatterbox.
Today, the strip boasts 33 places serving everything from spaghetti to sushi. Pick a dish and you're sure to find it.
The ever-expanding selection poses new challenges for the places that have been around a while. Do they rely on their regulars? Or do they evolve to broaden their customer base?
Davis chose the latter.
After 18 years of running Le Bordeaux, Davis decided to transform the restaurant into St. Bart's Island House, which opened last week. He kept the French part but shifted the focus from European to Caribbean.
Expect plenty of fresh fish and fruits in a casual, bright setting. Feel free to wear shorts, his preferred clothing du jour.
"We want to be an everyday restaurant to people," he says.
The change was inspired by his customers and love of the Caribbean. Over the years, seafood sales grew more than any other menu item. Instead of glazed lamb shank and roasted potatoes, diners craved salmon gravlax capre and salade verte.
"People want to dine lighter," Davis says. "They don't want to sit down to a big meal and a two-hour affair."
As part of the transformation, he replaced the signature chalkboard menus with more traditional, everyone-gets-one menus. To create a Caribbean feel, he lined the foyer walls with coral tiles and landscaped the courtyard with 40 kinds of bromeliads.
Davis kept some of the old menu favorites -- bouillabaisse and crispy duck -- but added several new ones, including sauteed flounder with crab cake, seared tuna filet with jerk caramel sauce and filet mignon with a coffee cocoa demi-glaze.
Executive chef Eric Kern calls the cuisine better "stomach-wise, heart-wise and calorie-wise."
The fish comes fresh from the Caribbean and local waters. Davis' crew goes fishing twice a week for snapper, grouper and whatever else is in season.
Desserts by Kelly Chandler feature exotic fruits, from dried papaya ice cream to a chocolate rum and banana tort.
Davis, 50, discovered many of the menu items while vacationing on the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe, St. Maarten and St. Bartholomew -- the inspiration for his new venture. When he tasted something he liked, he and his companion, Lorena, sweet-talked their way to the kitchen. Several chefs offered tips and recipes.
He shaved prices in an effort to draw a larger, cost-conscious crowd. Dinners average $20 to $30 a person compared with $40 to $50 at Le Bordeaux. Salads now come with entrees, instead of a la carte.
Lighter appetites can take their pick of 30 tapas plates served in the restaurant and adjacent tapas bar, formerly the Left Bank. Davis had great success with tapas at his other Howard Avenue restaurant, Ceviche, and hopes to create a similar situation at St. Bart's.
Remaking Le Bordeaux was tough, he admits. After the new sign went up, several longtime customers called to object.
"Some are furious and say, 'How dare you close Bordeaux?"' he says. "I say, 'Please give us a chance."'
Davis says Le Bordeaux has grown steadily over the years but, like most high-end restaurants, has felt the sting of 9/11. He sells the most escargot in the region and has a following that considers his duck the best.
Still, you can't live forever off customers who come in once a year for anniversaries or special occasions.
"Tablecloth restaurants are great when times are great," he says.
People craving traditional French fare can continue booking events in the two banquet rooms. Davis left those rooms alone for weddings and parties, and serves the old Bordeaux menu.
His love for food began at a young age. When other kids were eating burgers, he was eating escargot at acclaimed restaurants. His father, Gene Davis, worked as a wine broker. His mother, Helen Gordon Davis, is a former state senator and former chairwoman of the Hillsborough Democratic Party.
A Berkeley Preparatory School graduate, Davis landed his first restaurant job at Bern's, delivering wine to tables and working in the kitchen. Before opening Ceviche in 1997, he ran Exodus, a French-Vietnamese restaurant, at the same spot in the Bayshore Royal condo.
Davis hope people embrace his latest creation.
"I'm pretty tenacious," he said. "I know if the food is good, people will continue to come."
-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- JOB: Owner, St. Bart's Island House
- FORMERLY CALLED: Le Bordeaux Country French Restaurant
- ALSO OWNS: Ceviche
- FAVORITE DISH: Duck Confit
- FIRST PASSION: Cooking
- SECOND PASSION: Metal sculpting
- FAVORITE ISLAND: St. Bartholomew, commonly known as St. Barts or St. Bart's.
- LIVING INSPIRATION: Francis Delage, chef at La Route Des Boucaniers on St. Bartholomew.
- HONORARY INSPIRATION: The late Bern Laxer
- FAVORITE LOCAL EATS: Bern's Steak House, J Alexander's, Oystercatchers
- HOBBIES: Fishing, sailing, snorkeling
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