As I mentioned in a recent column, I’m lucky enough to be writing from France for a few weeks which may, perhaps, skew my perspective on Tampa Bay bistro cuisine. However, I have also long been a Julia Child disciple; her standards shaped me as a home cook and, ultimately, as a food writer. That said, let us begin.
Parts of Paris’ 1936 Florida bungalow just north of Main Street in Safety Harbor has a lovely, welcoming courtyard. It leads you up a few stairs and opens to a sleek white and dark wood interior that suggests the owner’s Scandinavian roots. The room is simply beautiful — minimal, but with obvious attention to detail in all aspects of the design down to the elegant menu typography and graphics. And the wine list, while small, is chosen with care to match the food well and features a nice mix of fairly priced wines by the glass. My heart quickens as I take my seat in anticipation of a real French meal that reflects a similar obsessive vision.
Sadly, this is not to be.
It’s too bad, but Parts of Paris’ food just isn’t as striking as its decor. The onion soup is unusual; it’s thick and tastes of tomato as much as onion. The lobster bisque is also atypical, dark and not particularly creamy, lacking the pale coral hue and sherry-spiked lusciousness I’ve come to expect. The lush-sounding sauteed foie gras appetizer is disappointing. The sear is uneven; that special mouth-watering surface glisten is absent, and the roasted peach accompaniment lacks punch.
The frog legs, however, shine. They are the best bites of the evening, tender and with a balance of butter, garlic and parsley that brightens up the taste buds. But they’re presented without even a hint of garnish. It may reflect the influence of Scandinavian simplicity, but I miss traditional French fussiness where bistro plates double as canvases with splashes of gastronomic color.
The bouillabaisse with Chilean sea bass, mussels, clams and shrimp looks like it’s fresh from the Marseille harbor and is generally flavorful, but the small lobster tail that’s part of the stew is a bit tough. The canard à l’orange — pan-seared duck breast — is served oddly in big chunks rather than being sliced, and the marmalade, while a tasty accompaniment, comes as a big glob rather than a glaze. While poulet rôti (golden roasted chicken) is quite tasty, the tiny duck fat-roasted potato, pommes rissole, is just ordinary. That’s not true of the grilled asparagus served with the chicken. The slightly charred spears are quite lovely, retaining a perfect resistance to the bite and avoiding American squishiness; this is why French technique makes kings and queens of vegetables.
Boeuf bourguignon is overly salty and not because of any lardons, those magical nuggets of slab bacon that are the wings on which this sauce takes flight. They’re missing, as are the traditional accompaniments of brown-braised onions and sautéed mushrooms that meld with wine-braised meat until they transcend their humble beginnings. The white rice with a few flecks of a wild, darker cousin has me longing for homemade egg noodles, which would be much more appealing and flavorful. And the lack of any garnish is just jarring.
The three cheeses on les fromages plate are ripe and nicely chosen but served in odd chunks and, while the jam accompaniment is only fair, the bread has a nice crunch.
Our table wants to finish with a bang, but the tarte tatin is a huge disappointment. What’s served is really a deconstruction of the flavors — just a loose bunch of sautéed apples on top of a circle of adequate pastry with a drizzle of caramel sauce from a squeeze bottle. Say it isn’t so! You can’t cut corners and avoid the careful, slow caramelization that binds the elements and elevates a real tatin to the pantheon of French pastry. It’s nowhere to be found, although the accompanying ice cream shows plenty of fresh vanilla flavor.
Parts of Paris’ service is very friendly, but not terribly consistent and lacks finesse — especially considering the fact that the restaurant is not overly crowded. Even accounting for the leisurely pace that usually marks a continental European meal, the service is very slow between the entrée and the cheese course. In fact, we had to explain to the server twice that we wished the cheese to be its own course before the tarte tatin, yet he didn’t seem to understand our request.
In retrospect, the restaurant’s name is perfectly apropos: the meal delivers only “parts of Paris.” But the potential is there, and perhaps, with a bit more practice, Parts of Paris will smooth its rough edges, embrace some garnishes, and deliver a complete “City of Light” experience to the charming heart of Safety Harbor.
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