Thursday, April 25, 2002
Photo by Randy Tunnell.
It''s been six years since I''ve been to a traditional French restaurant. Even on a visit to France, there were alternatives. I do appreciate the French and their wonderful food, but I desired a hiatus from the past when fine dining equaled French dining. Given a choice, I''ve been opting for spots where I might discover something new.
Chez Felix has been on my list of places to try since the first time I saw its charming red-lettered sign hanging over the sidewalk on the edge of Carmel''s commercial district. The diminutive eatery occupies part of an old residential building, the Sundial Lodge. Its stucco walls and framed windows semi-obscured by lace held the hope that a meal here might provide a voyage to a faraway place. (Unless you''re French, this is still ethnic food.)
Several acquaintances have cited Chez Felix as their favorite restaurant, so I recently decided to uncover its secrets. After an anonymous meal, I spoke with chef/owner Jean Louis Tourel, who said he''s crazy.
He''s crazy because since he and his wife, Madeleine, opened 21 years ago, the two have worked together six days a week-from 8am to 2:30pm, and 5pm to midnight. He''s crazy because they enjoy running a restaurant powered by a fuel-efficient human engine of two who are no longer young. They chop, they mince, they puree-they wash everything from potatoes to dishes-without employees. Their daughter often helps in the evenings after working as an occupational therapist.
I ask why. He laughs: "I have the passion."
The passion is "classical country French food," inspired by Jean Louis'' native Avignon, in Provence, and is distinguished from typical French restaurants by a preference for simpler, more rustic dishes.
One step inside Chez Felix and you''re in the center of the dining room. The scent is alluringly musty, like old linens in grandmother''s trunks. Pictures are hung closely together-drawings, etchings, paintings, photographs, prints.
Madeleine, the face of Chez Felix, is hostess, server, wine steward and flambe cook. It''s great to be waited on by a woman who knows her stuff. She''s not afraid to refuse to make a recommendation and she''s not afraid of fire.
"Everything is good," she says, then steps aside to create, then tame a tempest of flames as she prepares a dish tableside for a neighboring couple.
The wine list features comparatively low prices: few are more than $40; most range from $18 to $30. "I charge what I would want to pay," Jean Louis explains. Some customers hesitate to order an inexpensive wine because they fear it won''t be good, but the owners have resisted the temptation to raise prices.
I''m hoping to try all the dishes, but one friend, Susanne, dislikes sharing, so when she orders Escargots de Bourgogne with parsley, garlic and butter, I order the spicier Escargots el Djazair, feeling confident I can negotiate a snail-for-snail trade. It works. Both are superb and we eat every bit of the sauces with bread.
I''ve heard the succinct menu has never once been modified and Madeleine confirms this. Amazed, I look around, enjoying the scene of both young and old. We try Moules Marinieres-mussels in a broth-and it''s one of the evening''s highlights.
Though we live in the "salad bowl of the world," it rarely translates to the plate as it does here. Our chef has mastered a light dressing and serves it on butter lettuce.
We try to extract a recommendation, but sweet Madeleine is as unyielding as yesterday''s baguette. She''s also terse when asked for a dish''s ingredients. When pressed, she''ll say she doesn''t know. Either she''s a keeper of secrets or Jean Louis alone knows the alchemy of his work. Fortunately, Madeleine was right. Everything is good.
Seasonal vegetables and potatoes or rice accompany all entrees. Tonight''s special is salmon in a white wine sauce. I expect the thick sauce to taste like cream or starch, but it is so silky and subtly faceted that I don''t know what''s in this delicious recipe.
One of my favorite games is guessing ingredients, but it''s impossible to discern in these well-crafted sauces-a hallmark of French cooking that I''m rediscovering.
Another principle of French cooking is apparent: The stronger the meat, the stronger the sauce. Jean Louis''s specialty is pork tenderloin, a stew-like dish with a hearty, gamy sauce, slightly tangy with red wine and prepared as "hunters prepare venison in the wild."
There''s Entrecôte Marchand de Vin, a New York cut sirloin flambeed in cognac, and Entrecôte with a green peppercorn sauce, both prepared tableside.
Madeleine has relaxed, or maybe we have relaxed, allowing her to smile easily and she even makes a dessert suggestion in the Vacherin Glace. It''s ice cream, meringue and a raspberry sauce-a fantastic concoction, as is its cousin, Meringue Mystere, with chocolate sauce.
At Chez Felix, everything is better than it sounds. Nothing is boring or bland, nothing is pretentious, certainly not the owners. I don''t know how else to convince you to try it, unless reasonable prices (hors d''oeuvres $4.50 to $7, most entrees are around $18) for quality French dining will inspire you. You''ll find that and more in this lovely restaurant.