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Winter Park boîte shuns trends in favor of tradition

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.

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 Darfur” 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.
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