Love of Country
You could easily miss diminutive Café de France on Park Avenue. And that would be a big mistake.
he sharp left turn off West Fairbanks Avenue onto crowded Park Avenue doesn’t leave much time to scope out the neighborhood offerings. And once you shake off the stainless steel dazzle of BurgerFi on the corner, it can be easy to miss a little French bistro amidst a depressing expanse of vacant storefronts. This end of the upscale main drag was hit hard by the economic downturn and an attitude on the part of visitors that can only be called, to use the French, ennui. Why bother traveling to the Rollins end of the street when so many bright and shiny things are happening a just few blocks north?
Café de France, that’s why.
The small café opened in 1982 to critical acclaim and has been a lone mainstay in a very changeable scene. Dominique Gutierrez and her husband, German, have owned the café for 27 years.
“The first owner was a lady from the south of France,” Dominique says. “She was here for one-and-a-half years, then another French lady bought it. I started working with her in 1985, and by ’86 we owned the restaurant.” Gutierrez was born in the Vendée region of western France, a place known for its rolling river valley, superbly tasty ducks, seaside resorts and a capital, La Roche-sur-Yon, that the 1854 guide A Handbook for Travellers in France, proclaimed, “In the midst of a district of barren open heath, it stands about the dullest town in France.” Things have probably improved since the Crimean War days, but they weren’t enough to keep Dominique Gutierrez from coming to study business at UCF, where she met her husband.
“I’m a product of the countryside,” she says, “a regular French girl.” The cuisine served in her bit of Florida countryside resonates of simple home cooking—if the home has Prince Edward Island mussels, rabbit and filet mignon in its larder.
This is not the butter-and-cream-rich cuisine of the classical French, nor olive and herb-y Mediterranean fare, but simple and subtle dishes with a measured approach to seasoning and combinations of flavors that define the word elegant. The food is not of a specific region, but of this specific restaurant.
“Thirty years of serving my customers, seeing what they eat and what they ask for, that’s our food,” Gutierrez says. She works in the kitchen and designs the menu with her chef de cuisine, Nathaniel Russell, while German handles the dining room and wine selection. The menu changes every six months. “I’ve been seasonal so long it makes me laugh that everybody talks about it now. We don’t have four seasons here, so I do two.”
The food of this season included a rabbit and chicken terrine ($7), a paté of roughly cut meat and spices that holds up under the spreading knife, which can be used liberally on crusty bread supplied by Olde Hearth Bread Co. The paté varies and is made fresh every day. The bread reappears as long thin croutons served alongside a beautiful bowl of moules marinières ($10), plump black Canadian mussels steamed with finely diced shallots, white wine and cream. The grilled bread adds a perfect smoky char to the velvet sauce, which you will devour completely after eating the shellfish. It is a brilliant dish.
Followed by more brilliance. Demi canard roti ($30), a slow-roasted glazed duck, is rich and savory from the oven, served with butter-roasted Brussels sprouts and a delightful pumpkin flan drizzled with balsamic vinegar. The filet mignon de boeuf ($32) wasn’t quite what I expected. From the description—pepper-crusted filet—my mouth was set for a steak au poivre, but no spicy crunchy crust was found, simply a medium rare segment of tenderloin, dressed with green peppercorns and a thick cream sauce replete with brandy. My mouth went from surprised to delighted.
Gutierrez et son mari are serving a third generation of their customers, as sons and daughters who first came as children bring their own children to dine. And while times are still tough on the south end of Park Avenue (Gutierrez told me her rent has tripled since 2008), she is still listening to the clientele and making simple food elegantly. Café de France is a treasure we can ill afford to lose.
Café de France
526 Park Ave. South
There is no French cuisine without bread, and the midday combination of sturdy herb bread from Shannon Talty’s Olde Hearth Bread Co. and slow roasted lamb, topped with caramelized onions and spinach with a bit of Brie slowly melting through it ($9) is enough to make a Frenchman weep with joy.