French in Orlando

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    Amid a bustle of pre- and post-pubescent mallrats, a Greek man is boldly bringing a French delicacy to the masses. Some say they're wussy pancakes; some say ça c'est bon, but either way you flip it, crepes are a street-food staple and Konstantinos Chilias, aka chef Dino, is griddling at the chance to find converts in the Sunshine State. Sure, a food court isn't the most likely place to find a creperie, but when you think about it, it makes sense. Indoor street fare is essentially what food courts serve up, and Dino's brand of delicate made-to-order flappe-jacques are worthy of a traipse into the Orlando Fashion Square Mall fray.

    Leafing through the menu, I was struck at the number of sweet and savory crepes ' nearly 70 are offered. Even by Parisian standards, that's an impressive amount, but what really impresses is that quality doesn't suffer as a result. 'Mall foodâ?� and 'qualityâ?� are often thought of as being mutually exclusive, but the friendly Grecian is doing his part to alter that perception one gourmet crepe at a time.

    Ushering in this new era in food-court dining has taken chef Dino halfway 'round the globe, from humble beginnings hawking crepes on the thoroughfares of Paris in the early 1980s to owning and operating cafés on the Greek isle of Rhodes, in Long Beach, Calif., and, most recently, in Ybor City. Odd he would choose a mall in Orlando as his next conquest, though he admits his ultimate plan is to open a storefront café downtown or in Winter Park.

    Yearning for a light meal on my initial visit, I opted for 'La Creperie Special� ($8.25), a creamy mélange of mushrooms, spinach, tomatoes, green peppers and caramelized onions enveloped by a slightly crisp whole-wheat crepe. Every fromage-filled bite satisfied, accompanied with Dino's fresh-squeezed, though lip-pursingly sour, lemonade ($3.75), and I couldn't help but feel sorry for the folks lining up at Sbarro and JJ's Cajun.

    Vegetarians can have a field day here, no doubt, but I have to say I enjoyed the chicken-filled 'La Parisâ?� ($8.25) even more; it balanced perfectly the flavors of feta, spinach and roasted red peppers. On another visit, I sampled the 'turkey a la brieâ?� ($7.50), which proved to be my favorite. Layered with square slivers of turkey, diced tomato and gooey brie, the dish is made magnifique by Dino's secret cream sauce.

    It took me awhile to decide on a sweet crepe, but I eventually settled on the 'Marie Antoinetteâ?� ($7.25) with Nutella, banana, strawberries and Baileys liqueur. The batter, made with fine baker's flour, is properly brushed around a hotplate, resulting in a light, ultra-thin pancake. Watching the cook prepare my indulgence, I noticed the bananas he used were overripe, the peel nearly black. Then walnuts were sprinkled into my crepe, after which I realized they weren't making a Marie Antoinette at all. What I got instead was a decent enough sweet crepe, but the miscue brought to light some of the service deficiencies apparent when Dino isn't present (usually on weekends). The staff, sans Dino, can get a bit out of sorts when serving two or more customers at a time; on this occasion they mixed up my order, forgot the 'Berry Appealingâ?� smoothie ($4) I ordered and forgot to charge me for dessert.

    On another visit, Dino himself prepared the classic crepes suzette (known here as 'Madame Suzette,� $7.75), and though a flambé failed to materialize, the crepe was everything I hoped it would be: a buttered and sugared crepe drizzled with Grand Marnier, splashed with fresh lemon and orange juice, folded into a triangle and drizzled with more Grand Marnier.

    Since the demise of Maison des Crepes in Winter Park, crepeheads haven't had a venue in which to satisfy their cravings. But chef Dino is as determined as King Leonidas to change that, and I wouldn't be surprised to see one of his stand-alone creperies open in town sooner than later.

    But for now, we dine in (mall) hell.

    Claude and Chantal Wolff’s unassuming cafe on the fringes of Dr. Phillips may not conjure up images of enjoying lattes and croque monsieurs on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, but it won’t conjure up images of pouty, mustachioed servers dishing out attitude along with the chocolate croissants either. The Wolffs are so genuinely charming and exuberantly welcoming that you’d think they’re out to single-handedly undo France’s reputation for brusque, splenetic service.

    Claude, it seems, takes it upon himself to personally greet every customer, while Chantal, though somewhat limited in her proficiency of the English language, perpetually beams as she preps soups, sandwiches and salads behind the counter. The French quarters here are cramped: The handful of tiny tables can sometimes make for a near-mob scene, and the tables outside fill up quickly. But there’s good reason for it – the savory sandwiches.

    Le Café de Paris’ secret lies in the baguettes, which Claude flies in daily from a small village in his home région of Lorraine. So whether you opt to layer your baguette with ham, Swiss cheese, lettuce and tomato (as in the croque monsieur – $5.95), or with butter, brie cheese and tomato (as in the Le Parisien – $5.95), it’s really hard to go wrong. The pan bagna chicken ($6.50), a livelier version of the chicken salad sandwich with black olives, is so named because the bread (pan) is usually bathed (bagna) in olive oil, but because many patrons here don’t have a palate for huile-dressed bread, Chantal will only brush the oil on by request. I enjoyed the enormous sandwich, which was cut into three filling diagonals, but I would’ve preferred a side of potato salad instead of a bag of Lays potato chips.

    Though the quiche (as well as all tarts and pastries) is prepared by a good friend of Claude’s, the outsourcing hasn’t affected the taste any. The fluffy core of eggy quiche Lorraine ($5.50) is accentuated with bacon and ham and walled by marvelous crust. Vegetarians will enjoy a more intensely flavored version with spinach, broccoli and cheese ($5.50), but if you’re up for a high-caloric intake, the tartiflette ($5.50) with potato, eggs, bacon and cheese will disprove the claim that real men don’t eat quiche.

    Chantal’s salad du jour ($6.95), on this visit a Niçoise-like salad sans hard-boiled eggs, was a humdrum assemblage of green beans, cucumbers, black olives, onions and thin tomato slices with a dollop of canned tuna occupying the core of a large plate. Tomato bisque ($3.95), though a tad salty, was perfectly rich and creamy, while chicken soup ($3.95), with its pungent oniony broth teeming with carrots, celery, thick noodles and morsels of chicken, proffered one comforting slurp after another.

    I’ve always been partial to chocolate croissants ($1.90), and the flaky rectangles served here are buttery indulgences. The only issue I had with the crème brûlée ($3.38) was the consistency – more runny than custardy – but the wonderful essence of vanilla bean had me scooping the bowl clean. The flaky peach tart square ($4.50) would’ve been better served warm, a request I later realized I could’ve made. A thick chocolate chip cookie ($1.50) goes well with any of their espresso-based coffees, which Claude is more than happy to refill au gratis should the mood strike him.

    In France, I quickly learned that conversing in the native language, or at least making an effort, resulted in pleasant experiences and favorable outcomes. At Le Café de Paris, a similar approach may tip the balance in your favor, though the Wolffs are so affable, they seem to extend their hospitable generosity to just about everyone.

    When I go to a fancy French restaurant, I expect to pay a lot of money. It's part of the whole experience: Exquisite food, first-rate service, hushed atmosphere, and a bill that makes me flinch.

    So, I was taken aback when my guest and I received a relatively modest tab at Le Coq au Vin. Our dinner, including two appetizers and two entrees, plus dessert -- came down to just $52.74, including taxes. And we could have gotten off cheaper if we had ordered half-portions of entrees, which are half-priced, plus $2.

    In spite of the manageable bill, it still was an incredible dinner. We started off with a traditional onion soup, gratinee au cide ($5). It was, hands down, the most exceptional onion soup we've ever experienced. Sweetened with apple cider, cream and gruyere cheese, it had a bit of a nutty flavor.

    We also sampled a gorgeous vegetable pastry, feuilette de legumes ($5.75), a phyllo-dough affair, embedded with toasted sesame seeds, and baked with a filling of finely hopped vegetables, cheddar cheese, tarragon and basil. The whole effect was light, crispy and delicious.

    Our dinners also were enticing, particularly le grouper bronze aux dix epices ($16). This was a beautiful fillet encrusted with toasted pecans and spices, then bronzed in a cast-iron skillet and bathed in citrus beurre blanc. My guest had a black angus steak ($18) that surpassed all expectations; it was a primal experience. Center-cut for tenderness and cooked to medium perfection, there was a touch of blush to the meat, served with a potent dollop of creamy peppercorn sauce. On the side, buttery caviar potatoes were the perfect complement to both of our dinners, crowned with puffs of sour cream and dots of caviar.

    Afterward, we immersed ourselves in Grand Marnier soufflé ($5). It was the picture of grace, rising high over the dish and glazed golden brown. Drenched with liqueur it was pure heaven, enhanced by lemony undertones.

    Service was professional, but not quite as polished as we had come to expect based on previous visits. Yet our waitress seemed sincere in her desire to be thorough.

    Le Coq au Vin is a bit of an enigma. It's oddly located on a stretch of Orange Avenue that includes convenience stores and used car lots. But its saving grace is that it consistently serves some of the best country French cuisine in Orlando, if not all of Florida.

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