Thursday, February 4, 2010
The only thing uncommon about Jean and Mary Hubert’s dream of owning a restaurant is that they acted on it. They even had the precise location in mind for 10 years: Dolores Street in Carmel. The spot was home to Tutto Mondo Trattoria, then briefly Thai Orchid, before Le St. Tropez came true last November.
It helped that Jean worked as a chef for 27 years, then spent seven years in front-of-the-house management (most recently at Casanova and Little Napoli), while Mary’s last gig was as the spa director at Ventana Inn. Only seven weeks after opening, they achieved a full house – all 60 seats – when I arrived for dinner on a Friday in January.
The town of St. Tropez evokes wealth and celebrity, and I’m glad to report the restaurant is earthier than the image its chi-chi namesake evokes.
“We wanted a neighborhood place that’s warm and engaging and friendly,” says the genial Chef Jean. “No attitude.”
Mary is the rosy frontwoman, ushering guests into a dining room of dark wood, sunflower-splashed tablecloths, a corner fireplace and small bar. An overhang creates the feeling of a veranda, and my friend and I were lucky to get one of the comfortable booths that provide a good angle on the action.
For the wine list, Chef Jean wanted to focus on southern French wines, true to their varietals, with many priced in the teens, twenties and thirties, as well as some higher-end bottles. Wines by the glass rotate, so there’s no menu, but you can check out the bottles on the bar ($6 to $10/glass). I went for a 2007 Gerard Bertrand French Pinot Noir, beautiful for the price ($8/glass; $38/bottle). Bertrand’s wines have been hot for a couple of years, and deserve the love. Le St. T will also feature liquor soon.
Chef Jean takes his inspiration from the provençale cuisine of southern France, where a key element is vegetable-based sauces, with less cream and butter. “I use both, but I use a lot more olive oil,” he says. “That’s what the Mediterranean is about. Fresh, healthier cuisine. And I don’t thicken my soups with flour.”
A plate of housemade hummus, beets, olives, tomatoes and a sprig of broccolini comes complimentary with three types of bread. The breads weren’t much better than average, but the crudités are a top-tier welcome gift and mighty generous. Value is one of Hubert’s goals, and the crudités are one reason menu prices can’t be taken at face value.
Other reasons are sizable portions and as many organic ingredients as possible. Hubert buys what veggies he can from five or so local organic growers, and meats from several all-natural, free-range producers. If it matters to you, ask, because some meats, like the chicken, grass-fed beef filet mignon and the veal in the Osso Buco are organic and free-range, but certain cuts are not.
Starters, soups and salads cost $6.50 to $9.50, and entrees are in the $20s (three entrees are available only for two persons), except for two pasta dishes below $20 and two meat entrees above $30 (filet mignon and rack of lamb).
I started with the salade a la Greque, which was terrific. A mix of bitter greens with a delicate yogurt dressing and accents of cucumber, tomato, olives and ricotta salata add up to a flavorful, leafy interpretation.
If you like simple, roasted poultry, I recommend the crisp-skinned half duckling with fennel, garlic and green olives. The vegetables are lightly braised in duck fat and red wine, and served on the side with roasted potatoes ($22.50).
And if you like garlic, try the scallops provençale. The sauce fuses white wine, garlic, a touch of butter and chopped tomatoes. I relied on the kindness of my guest for tastes, and watched him ardently clean every drop from his plate with bread. It’s served over flat egg noodles ($25) and will likely be a big seller.
Chef Jean excels at letting the fresh, main ingredients do the talking. Salt, herbs and spices are kept in check. One dish I couldn’t talk myself into loving was the Spanish-influenced prawns with roasted garlic and smoked pepper coulis. I appreciated the off-the-beaten-track flavor of smoked paprika, but the luscious scallops win my seafood vote.
The all-housemade dessert menu has a seriousness of purpose usually left to the entrees. Grand Marnier souffle and chocolate souffle for two ($16) take 20 minutes to prepare, so order early or wait. Crêpes Suzette are made tableside for two and cost $20. Many wouldn’t hesitate to spend that on cocktails, and the key ingredient, Grand Marnier, isn’t cheap, so why not splurge? Our choice, the chocolate souffle, was intensely pleasurable, but don’t expect an intensely chocolate experience. The flourless chocolate cake can do that for you ($9). A total of nine desserts include crème brûlée ($7), saffron panna cotta ($7), and white-and-dark-chocolate mousse ($8).
We took an after-dinner stroll, and operating at capacity just wasn’t the case at many restaurants on this winter night. The Huberts appear to have gauged the pulse of the community with the value-driven Le St. Tropez. It looks like this big-hearted new eatery is in for a warm winter and a hot summer.