A cup of tomato soup and a hot dog is such an iconic American childhood lunch, it might seem out of place in a restaurant like Alesia, a new spot in St. Pete's Pasadena neighborhood that's focused on casual French and Vietnamese cuisine. The price adds to the disconnect — just $5.90, surprisingly — as does the look of the restaurant: clean lines, the decor spare but thoughtful, the atmosphere both comforting and elegant, with an enclosed and cobbled outdoor courtyard that's just as pleasant.
But taste that soup. It's bisque, rich and refined, each silky spoonful carrying pepper, cream and, above all, the bright flavor of the tomatoes that form the base. Distinctly French and exceptionally good, even before you factor in that the soup is just half of that inexpensive meal.
That hot dog — a foot-long — is nestled inside a crusty and warm baguette, topped by sweet and soft caramelized onions, and coated in a deadly duo of bechamel sauce infused with cheese and a blanket of melted gruyere. Just one bite in and a flood of regret flows through you, as you think of all the mediocre hot dogs you've eaten on bland buns with yellow mustard and neon relish. Who knew they could have been this good?
The rest of Alesia's menu is more obviously French or Vietnamese-inspired, but it never strays from a mood of strictly casual comfort food, with prices to match. Understandable, since the restaurant is a family affair, conceived by two sisters and a brother by marriage who enlisted the help of their parents in the kitchen. They have kids — which is why the place closes surprisingly early at 7 p.m. — and this is the food they grew up on. If only all of us were so lucky.
Appetizers are strictly divided into cultural lines, with tasty fried egg rolls stuffed with pork and serviceable vegetarian fresh rolls on one side and plates of baguette and cheese or charcuterie on the other. The only surprise comes in Alesia's version of chips and salsa, the chips foamy crisps infused with the flavor of dried shrimp, the salsa fortified by tiny cubes of sweet watermelon.
Pho — the trademark beef noodle soup of Vietnam — is redolent of star anise and basil, the broth sweet and spicy and tart, the thinly sliced beef and long noodles tender. So much flavor is packed into good pho it could be a riot, but when it's great, as it is at Alesia, it pulls off an understated elegance that belies the soup's comfort food origins.
There's also a version of bun noodle salad and a beef stew seasoned with southeast Asian spices, served over noodles, that displays the French colonial influence over the cuisine of Vietnam. Thank the French for that, at least, and the baguette.
If it hadn't been for the introduction of good bread to the area, the world would never have been introduced to the glory of banh mi. Here, that Vietnamese contribution to the world's greatest sandwiches is picture perfect, a mountain of pate, salami, ham, pickled veggies, cilantro and jalapeno slices crammed into a fresh and crusty loaf. Like all of the food at Alesia, it's a tad more elegant than what you'll find at the neighborhood Vietnamese deli, but it doesn't lose much in the process. And for a mere $6 (including a cup of that bisque or a simple salad) it is easily one of the best cheap meals in St. Pete.
Alesia also serves an array of other salads and sandwiches, from egg salad on slices of hearty rustic bread to France's croque monsieur, a ham and cheese amped by mornay sauce and tender portabello mushrooms. The salads are light and simple, from prosciutto and spinach with candied pecans and parmesan to shredded chicken on greens tossed with chopped mint and red onions.
There are crepes for dessert — either plain, with ice cream, or stuffed with Nutella — which the restaurant also stuffs with savory fillings like eggs, ham and guyere during its breakfast service. Alesia's other morning offerings include French toast, fruit, cereal, yogurt or the classic combination of coffee and baguette with butter or jam. And, just as at lunch or dinner, the cost is astonishingly low, with only the smoked salmon and cream cheese on baguette breaking the $5 mark.
Everyone needs to try Alesia, but potential restaurateurs should check out this new spot more than most, if only to copy the restaurant's winning formula for a modern eatery. Elegant but comfortable setting. Refined comfort food paired with a wine list packed with inexpensive but fantastic wines. Prices that belie the quality of the experience.
The result is the kind of restaurant that you can eat at on date night, visit a half dozen times a week for basic sustenance, or take the family to for a big meal, all without stressing your wallet or compromising your desire for incredible food.
I'll be doing all three.
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