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In the French tradition

Chateau France surrounds the diner with gracious airs, and the food recalls the flavors of a time before nouvelle ruled.

By CHRIS SHERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 17, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- While downtown exploded with flash and funk for the hip (and the lame), a few diners quietly found someplace else a few blocks and a century away to drop $100 or more on dinner for two.

Most nights, Chateau France seems at ease in the cozy clutch of B&Bs with a view of the bay and P. Buckley Moss. But on weekends a steady stream of celebrating families, swells and honeymooners keep the valet jumping and fill both floors and porches of the 1901 Victorian cottage and former tea room. It is done up with everything from grand-mere lace to a bathtub with red rose petals and candles floating on neon blue water.

There are other attractions. Sheer high price -- appetizers average $11 and entrees $25, not counting market price for Beluga or chateaubriand -- will impress showoffs. But for that price you get something friendly and familiar, nothing nouvelle or intimidating, just the old-school Continental that has meant big bucks dining for generations: red meat, lobster and chocolate souffles served with fuss and a French accent.

If such meals have gone out of style for some of us, Chateau France proves that they can still be delicious luxuries when made with prime ingredients and flair, with an occasional bonus of affordable wine and solid service.

Owner Antoine Louro comes by his Continental tendencies naturally. His parents are from Europe and the United States, and he trained in Swiss hotel schools and worked overseas. In Florida he brought Portuguese food to Oporto in Madeira Beach, French to Bon Ami in Melbourne and tapas to Ceviche in Tampa.

Here the theme was again French, but the best eating came from the surf and turf chunk of the menu: Filet mignon comes five ways, plus lamb and, if you're lucky, veal filet mignon too, which makes Chateau feels a bit like a steakhouse in French drag. (Not that there's anything wrong with that; cross-dressing would spice up most of our beef palaces.)

Indeed, when the owner paraded the raw stuff before us on a platter, a practice I usually deplore, I was impressed by the scallops and won over by the bright freshness of the sole and the veal filet too. Good choices both, and I'm glad we popped for them.

Sole is often more show and brag, but this was exceptionally good eating, moist and delicate, as well as being Fed-Ex fresh and boned at tableside with finesse (and a mighty pleased "The way I fillet this fish is incredible.")

We had the veal filet, a hefty 2-inch cut, medium rare. But it was so rich and tender I could have enjoyed it cooked far more; it still would have been a luscious piece of veal.

I had less luck sticking to traditional French entrees. Bouillabaisse did have lobster and a pot of shellfish, but the broth was thin and watery, with faint hint of fish or saffron, let alone rouille to give it fire. Coq au vin was equally disappointing; what should be a robust dish smacking of bacon, Burgundy and a long time on the hearth was just tough chicken in a gloppy sauce of wine and flour, at $23 one of the cheaper entrees but no bargain.

Appetizers and desserts showed the same range. Escargot in puff pastry were tender with a punchy sauce, but the duck pate was skimpy, scallops tough and the $15 lobster soup (I had to try) was a better show of lobster than soup. At meal's end, splurge on the chocolate souffle but skip the Cafe de Paris, a parfait of heavy chocolate pudding and berries. Between courses there's good bread with tarragon butter but a sticky, syrupy lemon sorbet.

Yet the kitchen showed skill in standard sides. Bread's good and the salad's a triumph. The eye will love the 4-inch-tall sheaf of red leaf lettuce secured by a long ribbon of seedless cucumber, and the palate will enjoy them mixed with bits of salmon, pecans and peppers.

Another stunner comes with the entree, a tower of thin potato slices layered with cheese, a la potatoes Anna, accompanied by asparagus and spaghetti squash. Better vegetables than at most restaurants, but still short of a truly fine restaurant that demands as much quality in sides as in meats and varies them according to the entree. Side items here are a step in the right direction.

Service comes in red vests, and some of it can be first rate. When a bus person delivered a take-home package before our meal was finished, the waiter gracefully concealed it and shifted it to a service table that was out of sight. Wine prices are pleasantly modest, with a goodly number of choices under $40, including a sleek Sancerre.

If this is your style, choose wisely and you'll have a swank dinner here. For my money, and this much of it, I want more contemporary sophistication. Or a lusty supper in a bistro for a lot less.

RESTAURANT REVIEW

Chateau France

136 Fourth Ave. NE, St. Petersburg; (727) 894-7163

Hours: 5 to 11 p.m. nightly

Reservations: Recommended

Credit cards: AE, D, DC, MC, V

Details: Smoking section available, full bar; wheelchair access good

Prices: $18 to $29

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