I seldom cook French food. It's fussy and complicated, which is why I think French restaurants are my favorite dining destinations. And, surprise of surprises, I found one in the vast French restaurant wasteland that is Tampa.
It's killing me to share this because I selfishly would like to keep my discovery all to myself, but Chef Gerard Jamgotchian's culinary talents deserve recognition, as do the fine service and quaint milieu of L'Eden. So here goes, mes amis...
Open since 2007, L'Eden is a charming bistro tucked into a corner nook of a turn-of-the-century building located at the downtown intersection of Tampa and Madison streets. Before taking Hubmeister there for his birthday dinner a few weeks ago, I had never heard of it. After reading a handful of quickie reviews on Urbanspoon, I decided it looked promising.
Parking on Saturday night was a cinch because downtown is not (yet) a weekend destination. We parked on the street a few steps from the restaurant. Arriving at 7 p.m. without a reservation, we waited only five minutes for one of the eight or so tables within the cozy space. It appeared the crowd consisted of a few tourists mixed with a table or two of Straz theater-goers. While waiting, I read a glowing newspaper clipping about the chef and was beginning to feel pretty good about my choice.
This spot is so small that one very efficient guy waits all the tables, tends the bar and prepares the specialty coffees. He mentioned that they had done a killer lunch business that day and a subsequent visit at lunchtime demonstrated that downtown office workers are well aware of L'Eden.
One of the lovely things about this cafe, and perhaps this is another reason for my affinity for French restaurants, is that you do not feel rushed. The emphasis is on the food - and your enjoyment of it - not on turning the tables at lightning speed. That is something to keep in mind at lunch, when service was also leisurely.
A menu featuring la cuisine du monde, virtually a global network of dishes from Spain, England, Panama, Russia, France, India, Asia and elsewhere, requires explanation because it combines a dynamic mixture of small plates and entrees in a single list. This is not a problem when you have a helpful server to advise you, and we did.
Our starter was Assiette de Charcuteries, a delectable assortment of cured meats encircling a dollop of pate. The salty, peppery meats were good, but truthfully we ordered the platter for the pate, which we smeared on wonderful French baguette slices that serve as the house bread. Welcome additions would be toast points or other crisp breads on which to spread it, and a larger portion. Less meat, more luscious pate. Better yet, a stand-alone pate appetizer would be heavenly.
We followed the first dish with a Poached Pear and Bacon Salad topped with blue cheese - a shared plate. It's hard to beat the sweet-and-salty combination of those ingredients. The bountiful salad was both eye-catching and delicious.
Our entrees consisted of Hubmeister's Steak Diane and my Duck and Brie Crepe. The crepe filling wasn't as creamy as I would have liked - I anticipated more oozing brie. The crepe itself was fine but not super delicate. I plead ignorance when it comes to judging duck, but I liked it. On the whole, though, I probably wouldn't order this dish again.
Since it was Hubs' birthday, it was only fair that he get the outstanding entree. The Steak Diane, smothered in sauteed mushrooms, was a dish that I will be sure to repeat at L'Eden. Tender slices of filet mignon bathed in a classic sauce of cognac, cream, green peppercorns - and who knows what else - exemplified the painstaking culinary complexity I love and it gets an A Plus. The accompaniments were asparagus and potatoes that I can't comment on because I was too busy stealing steak off Hubs' plate.
With an espresso bar in full view and a pastry-savvy chef commandeering the kitchen, we should have ordered dessert. But this is what happened: On a Saturday night at 8:30, a brazen woman brought in three young children, one of whom was carted in in a stroller. Of course, the infant got antsy and you can guess the rest. They obviously were tourists, but it's clear from L'Eden's intimate setting that it is not a place for kids. We made a run for it and headed home for a Food and Loathing-crafted birthday cake, which certainly was not a gateau up to Chef Gerard's standards but it was damn good rum cake, if I say so myself.
Before I sign off, I want to mention that this dinner didn't even run $100 and we each had a couple of adult beverages. Also, a note about lunch: I enjoyed excellent Quiche Champignon in the garden courtyard behind L'Eden. (Yes, the garden of Eden, hee...hee...hee.) This outdoor space was not utilized the night of our dinner, but the whole place was rocking during a weekday lunch.
L'Eden serves breakfast and lunch Monday - Saturday, 8 a.m. - 3 p.m.; dinner Wednesday and Thursday, 5 - 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 - 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. I strongly suggest dinner reservations.
Verdict: Tres bon!
L'Eden Restaurant and Bar
500 North Tampa Street