A French cafe to call your own

Owners hope a more casual name - Gulf Bistro - will let diners know their elegant food may be French, but it isn't stuffy. Or expensive.

Published January 11, 2007

There's a surefire formula for success along the Pinellas beachfront: fried grouper, cold beer, a side of slaw, a boisterous crowd and a perfect sunset.

But paradise has its limits. You long for more. Something quieter, perhaps, maybe even exquisite.

Something like Gulf Bistro.

For years this cozy refuge was called Cafe de France. It was a reliable outpost of superb yet simple French fare on the northern edge of Madeira Beach, a strip center away from a T-shirt shop. It served classic French fare - coq au vin, duck confit, lobster bisque, escargot- at a steady but unhurried pace. The surroundings soothed: tablecloths and subdued lighting, walls painted persimmon red.

But can a French restaurant be too - how does one say? - French for the beach? French as in fancy, stuffy, expensive. Cafe de France was none of that, but the name apparently said otherwise.

So November brought a new sign: Gulf Bistro. It's intended to suggest you can wear shorts and still eat fine food without jeopardizing your condo payment.

Fortunately, little else has changed. The fixed-price, four-course menu is $1 less, and breakfast is going away. No problem; lunch remains, and dinner is the star.

The fixed-price chef's dinner is a sensible way to go with myriad choices. You could start with a pungent onion soup, crowned with perfectly browned gruyere, or a light lobster bisque with hints of sherry. Next an elegantly simple salad of field greens and plum tomatoes, topped by feta or better, thin slices of smoked salmon. Move on to calves' liver with a green peppercorn sauce or maybe the popular pork loin with goat cheese and a slightly sweet raspberry sauce. Finish with classic profiteroles or chocolate mousse. This is beach food? Yes, with a shocker: a bill less than places up the road with their grilled shrimp, puny oysters and overpriced cocktails.

In some ways, Gulf Bistro is a mini-miracle, because this is a two-person operation. Mary Herodet runs the front, greeting every visitor with a smile and lilting French accent. She takes every order, serves every plate and glass of wine with warm efficiency. You never feel ignored or rushed. Frederic, her husband, a former personal chef for the president of Zaire, cooks every dish to order, prepares sauces from scratch, chooses every piece of grouper.

Yes, you can have grouper, though it's served with a light cream sauce, sauteed green beans, potatoes au gratin and a simple salad ($15.95).

The menu is not extensive, and that's the one downside to a small operation. If you become a regular, you soon make your way through the coq au vin, with its deep brown sauce redolent of cabernet, the cold foie gras pate with luscious duck fat clinging to the edge that rivals fine butter, and the mahi-mahi with silken lime sauce.

Is it greedy to want a surprise or two, a special not normally on the menu? Something from the cow other than liver?

Quibbles, and greedy ones at that. It's like complaining you can't see the sunset from Gulf Bistro. It's over there somewhere, past snowbird-clogged Gulf Boulevard and the hulking condos. No worries, it will be there tomorrow, with a grouper sandwich and beer.

Tom Scherberger is a Times editor; reach him at scherberger@sptimes.com Until a replacement for Chris Sherman is named, Weekend features guest critics.



Gulf Bistro

15225 Gulf Blvd., Madeira Beach

Phone: (727) 392-8627

Hours: Lunch 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Details: Credit cards, reservations accepted, wine, no smoking.

Prices: Lunch, $4.50-$7.95; dinner, $5.95-$15.95; $25.95 for four-course fixed-price menu.