French in Orlando

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    Classic French cuisine, of the sort revered gastronome Georges Auguste Escoffier codified in his landmark 1903 publication Le Guide Culinaire, has never really turned my gastric crank. I'm referring to those elaborate dishes where the role of the saucier supersedes that of the chef, resulting in caloric juggernauts heavy on béchamel and light on, well, nothing. Having been raised on a diet bordering on the infernal, I've often found myself veering away from haute and gravitating toward hot.

    But Café de France, a low-key boîte ensconced on high-profile Park Avenue, shuns the weighty and complicated for traditional nouvelle cuisine ' simple, light and with an emphasis on preserving natural flavors, not saucing them into submission. They've been doing so for nearly a quarter-century; chef Benjamin Schrank has defied gastro trends and maintained a focus on the straightforward, while adding a touch of finesse to his Gallic presentations.

    Escargots à l'ail ($9), for example, was a fine plating of succulent shelled snails bathed in herbed garlic butter and served with a small phyllo pastry shell. A couple of gritty gastropods were cause for concern, but I'd likely order it again. Same goes for the Bloody Mary bisque ($7), the soup du jour that should be available toujours. An airy puree of tomatoes and horseradish blazed a trail down the esophagus, but finely diced celery provided a cool crunch while a dollop of avocado mousse assuaged the palate. French onion soup ($6) was a textbook study of the classic starter, with a gossamer broth, subtly sweet onions and a generous layer of nutty Gruyère.

    Competent mains vary from rack of lamb ($29) to veal osso buco ($30), but the grilled ostrich ($30), a special for the evening, proved too tempting to pass up. Medium-rare slices of the lean, slightly gamy bird were served on a rectangular plate along with a splash of rosemary beurre-rouge, potatoes confit and stalks of broccolini. The dish's simplicity epitomizes Schrank's style, and the European-sized portion was also a welcome sight.

    The pan-seared filet ($30) was, in a word, outstanding. The side, a mix of corn, shallots and diced Peruvian potatoes in a roasted red pepper coulis, brought out the flavor of the beef, while an accompanying glass of Chateau Le Conseiller Bordeaux ($9) made an ideal pairing.

    Surrender yourself to the 'soft heart� chocolate soufflé ($8), a ramekin-shaped bonne bouche with a molten center of Belgian dark chocolate sided with fresh raspberries. I also found myself succumbing to the indulgence of the profiteroles ($8) ' the puff pastries filled with ice cream and drizzled with chocolate were neither overly sweet nor excessive.

    Surrender yourself to the 'soft heart� chocolate soufflé ($8), a ramekin-shaped bonne bouche with a molten center of Belgian dark chocolate sided with fresh raspberries. I also found myself succumbing to the indulgence of the profiteroles ($8) ' the puff pastries filled with ice cream and drizzled with chocolate were neither overly sweet nor excessive.

    The interior is reminiscent of a French country manor and exudes an air of austerity, as does the service, which, for the most part, is efficient and professional. I did get a chuckle when a pair of Rollins College students, one wearing a 'Save Darfurâ?� hoodie, walked in asking if they could get takeout. They were met with a polite non, but I felt bad they couldn't take a $30 filet or $32 roasted mallard duck in a paper bag back to the dorm.

    Then again, the restaurant's proximity to Rollins will, at times, see famished college students walk through its French doors in search of a classy nosh. And it's just as well considering that over the past 25 years, Café de France has been in the business of schooling its competition.

    The stylish mural outside Chez Vincent looks worthy of a cover of Vanity Fair from the 1930s. A lady and gentleman, in profile, sip from the same glass of wine and hint at what awaits within: seductive French cuisine in a casual, cosmopolitan atmosphere. Just weeks old, Chez Vincent is a shining new arrival on the spiffed-up streetscape in a happening enclave two blocks west of Park Avenue in Winter Park, and it promises to become a contender among the finest local restaurants.

    The smart interior – done in olives, taupes and creams – was conceived and executed by chef/co-owner Vincent Gagliano, formerly of Cafe de France. With just 15 tables, Chez Vincent is a restful oasis for a midday meal of hors d'oeuvres, soups and salads, or an elegant dinner with entrees that include Gulf shrimp sautéed in cream dill sauce ($18.50) and venison with sun-dried cherries in port wine sauce ($22.95). There's also an ample wine list, with 13 varieties served by the glass.

    The smart interior – done in olives, taupes and creams – was conceived and executed by chef/co-owner Vincent Gagliano, formerly of Cafe de France. With just 15 tables, Chez Vincent is a restful oasis for a midday meal of hors d'oeuvres, soups and salads, or an elegant dinner with entrees that include Gulf shrimp sautéed in cream dill sauce ($18.50) and venison with sun-dried cherries in port wine sauce ($22.95). There's also an ample wine list, with 13 varieties served by the glass.

    We were impressed with feuillettè d´escargots au porto, ($7.50), a crisp triangular puff pastry stuffed with dark, fleshy, sautéed snails and fortified by a sweet port wine sauce. The soupe du jour, vegetable ($3.95), was remarkable mainly for its excellent broth that had been simmering for several days, we were told, to enhance flavors of veal, leeks, thyme and carrots. Entrees are preceded by house salads, but I recommend upgrading to the unforgettable goat cheese salad, served warm with roasted pumpkin seeds over mixed baby greens ($2.65).

    We were impressed with feuillettè d´escargots au porto, ($7.50), a crisp triangular puff pastry stuffed with dark, fleshy, sautéed snails and fortified by a sweet port wine sauce. The soupe du jour, vegetable ($3.95), was remarkable mainly for its excellent broth that had been simmering for several days, we were told, to enhance flavors of veal, leeks, thyme and carrots. Entrees are preceded by house salads, but I recommend upgrading to the unforgettable goat cheese salad, served warm with roasted pumpkin seeds over mixed baby greens ($2.65).

    Among everything we ordered, the most outstanding was rack of lamb with blue cheese sauce ($21.50). Superbly tender, juicy portions of the rib were carved into chops and criss-crossed along the plate. A still life of sweet baby carrots and snow peas were arranged around the border, with a single rosette fashioned out of roasted apple skins. My guest enjoyed paupiette de poulet à la moutarde ($16.95), a boneless chicken breast pounded flat and rolled around an aromatic mixture of shiitake mushrooms, bell peppers and Swiss cheese, with a country Dijon sauce.

    Among everything we ordered, the most outstanding was rack of lamb with blue cheese sauce ($21.50). Superbly tender, juicy portions of the rib were carved into chops and criss-crossed along the plate. A still life of sweet baby carrots and snow peas were arranged around the border, with a single rosette fashioned out of roasted apple skins. My guest enjoyed paupiette de poulet à la moutarde ($16.95), a boneless chicken breast pounded flat and rolled around an aromatic mixture of shiitake mushrooms, bell peppers and Swiss cheese, with a country Dijon sauce.

    For dessert, chilled Grand Marnier soufflé ($5.25) stood tall on a small plate, creamy with undertones of citrus. I appreciated the flavors more fully after waiting a bit for it to warm up. Bavarios de chocolate ($4.95) consisted of chocolate and raspberry mousse layers, surrounded by a pool of mango coulis.

    Every once in a while, a restaurant comes along that is so special, it causes a seismic shift on the restaurant scene. The whole staff performed such a dazzling job at our dinner at Citricos that it earned my highest recommendation even though dinner for two easily runs more than $100, and from some areas of town, a visit could involve a 45-minute drive. But Citricos is worth the travel and expense.

    Part of Citricos' intrigue is the setting – on the second floor of Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, a Victorian luxury hotel that evokes Old Florida. While the restaurant's menu upon opening late last year called for a Mediterranean-Florida fusion, the current fare is more southern French, with international influences. The atmosphere has modern sensibilities, with earthy tiles and rich decor. The kitchen is "onstage," so you can watch chefs whip up gourmet creations.

    Our waiter guided us through the menu, offering suggestions and tempting descriptions of meats sizzled over oak-mesquite log fires and dishes cooked in the hand-made, iron Chandler oven, acclaimed for bread-baking and slow-roasting excellence. The bread basket got our dinner off to a sensational start. It would be hard to exaggerate how moist and exquisite these breads were. The best were flecked with seaweed and pecans.

    Among the entrees, roasted loin of lamb ($36) is arranged around an incredible Maine lobster ratatouille, with quarters of buerre blanc and spicy cabernet sauce. Another winner is the pork tenderloin ($25), roasted on a rotisserie, served with basil pesto, a spiral cut log of scalloped potatoes, and mixed Mediterranean vegetables.

    Desserts include Key lime cheesecake and citrus crè'me brûlée, but we favored the bittersweet chocolate ravioli – a crescent of sheer escapism, cradled around a divine scoop of licorice ice cream.

    Citricos is worthy of the most special of occasions, or if you're just in the mood for an epicurean indulgence.

    Downtown's newest lunch-on- the-run option is black and white and sweet all over. Parked on the corner of Central Boulevard and Court Street from 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, the striped-canopied Crepe Company cart is a quick source of street food en français, made right in front of you. Friendly pâtissières (decked out in faintly silly French-maidish lace caps and aprons) pour batter onto a hot griddle and fill it with your choice of savory or sweet ingredients, then fold it up to go in a polka-dotted paper cone.

    The front of the cart is lined with jars of Nutella, the French hazelnut-chocolate spread, so I was reassured as to the crepes' authenticity, at least on the dessert side of the equation, and I wasn't let down by the 'sweet heartsâ?� crepe: The creamy Nutella melted around perfectly ripe strawberries in a flawless blend of nature's sweetness and manmade sugariness. My savory choice, the 'club royaleâ?� (turkey, bacon, egg, tomato and avocado ' sort of a Cobb salad in a pancake) tasted fine, but fell to pieces when I picked it up. That's one thing about a street crepe: none of the usual sauces, because they'll run down your wrist. Go for something with cheese, which will melt and hold the crepe together.

    Waits can be long, since everything is cooked à la minute. (Tip: Phone ahead to pre-order. Also good to know: Owner Traci Sihle just added post-bar hours, 10:30 p.m.-2:30 a.m. at 37 N. Orange Ave.) Sihle wants to keep prices low, so the crepes are $4-$5; only one hits the $6 mark. Sweet deal.

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