FORT WORTH - Take a seat in the dining room at Le Cep, and it won't be long before a Champagne cart makes its way to your table. Will you choose, as your aperitif, a glass of 2012 Gérard Bertrand Cuvée Thomas Jefferson Crémant de Limoux Brut? Mumm Cordon Rouge?
For me it's a glass of Pierre Morlet Grande Réserve Premier Cru Champagne. With its light perfume of apple blossoms and earthy, mushroomy roundness on the palate, it's perfect with the amuse, a golden-brown puff pastry bite filled with duxelles of shiitakes and melty Gruyère. The tablecloth is white, the stemware sparkling. Our waiter, charming and correct, wears a dark suit and tie. Toward the end of our eight-course menu, selecting a cheese course from the well-appointed trolley will have us feeling like kids in a candy shop.
Are we in a time warp? Or could formal dining be staging a comeback? Are we really in Fort Worth?
Indeed we are. David and Sandra Avila opened their elegant, 15-table contemporary French restaurant in the Cultural District last fall, and it quickly became one of the city's best addresses.
Forty-six-year-old Sandra, a Mexico City native who trained at the Ducasse Institute in Paris and worked at 58 Tour Eiffel, is chef, while 44-year-old David, a Los Angeles native who grew up "all over Latin America," runs the dining room. His position with a pharmaceuticals company brought the couple to Fort Worth 15 years ago; after a four-year assignment in the Philippines, the couple returned to Texas in 2013.
"Seeing how much is happening in Fort Worth," David told me in a phone interview last June, "Sandra and I decided this would be a good time to launch into our dream of opening our own restaurant."
In an era of shared plates, bare tables, craft cocktails and drink-'em-up acoustics, the Avilas' decision to offer only formal eight-course or four-course tasting menus struck me as a wee bit insane when we chatted last year, but the well-dressed, mostly over-50 diners who populate the dining room seem hungry for an experience so civilized. The tables are spaced luxuriously apart. Music plays softly. The lighting is soft and flattering. It's a lovely place for a special occasion, or a quiet dîner à deux.
Last week the $85-per-person eight-course menu began with a venison consommé garnished with bits of feta and dried black olive and a pouf of foie gras mousse. A salad of scarlet runner beans mingled with a brunoise of carrots, shallots and celery on a raft of haricots verts dressed up with curls of shaved celery (pretty, but too stringy), cilantro oil and a balsamic vinaigrette. Flounder tartare was followed by a carefully cooked sockeye salmon fillet set on braised Brussels sprouts and beurre blanc, all topped with shaved raw Brussels sprouts and a tiny dice of Gala apple. Slices of rosy duck breast in a juniper berry-scented rosé wine sauce appeared with mushroom risotto and lightly dressed microgreens. Medium-rare slices of beef tenderloin communed with shiitake mushrooms and heirloom cherry tomatoes on a Cabernet-peppercorn sauce.
With a few exceptions (astringent raw jicama did nothing for the flounder tartare, risotto was overcooked), the plates were well-turned-out, the cooking precise and the flavors harmonious.
Am I a terrible curmudgeon to have found myself wishing, as I did on a previous visit in late December, that the chef either took more risks or showed a little more soul? Though Avila's technique is admirable, the conception of the dishes tends to be fairly predictable. Most successful (and yes, most unusual) were the consommé, with its beautiful, pure venison flavor and thoughtful garnishes, and the runner bean salad, where a lively imagination expressed itself more vibrantly than it did in the courses that followed it.
After the savory courses came the cheese cart - a $15-per-person indulgence my husband and I couldn't pass up. Fromagier Michael Dimsdale ably guided us through our selections: a fresh Couronne Lochoise goat cheese from the Loire, a nutty-flavored Petit Basque sheep's milk cheese, a sumptuous Roquefort and more; a marvelously funky unpasteurized Epoisse was most memorable.
Come dessert time, I wasn't wild about the raspberry beer sauce that accompanied chocolate ice cream (I felt the flavors clashed), but I enjoyed Avila's superlight take on bread pudding, lavished with caramel sauce and dotted with dried raspberries.
A $45-per-person four-course menu (available every night but Saturday) asks diners to make choices among the same eight dishes: the soup or the salad, for example, the tartare or the salmon, the duck or the beef, the ice cream or the bread pudding. Adding a cheese course to that strikes me as a delicious compromise.
The original idea, says David, was to change the menu on the first of every month, but as it's playing out, it's every four or five weeks, usually the second week of the month.
Our server (the same one on both occasions) was as helpful with David's wine list as he was knowledgeable about Sandra's menu, assuring us that a 2012 Télégramme Châteauneuf du Pape had lively enough acid to work with the fish courses and enough character to keep us hooked through the entire menu. He was right. The midsize, reasonably priced, mostly French list focuses on familiar names from Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux, with a few treats from the Rhone, Alsace, the Loire, Germany and Italy thrown in. It's not bursting with unusual discoveries, but there's plenty on it I'd be thrilled to sip.
When we dined at Le Cep, which incidentally means the base of a grapevine, in December, we went for the wine pairings offered with the menu. The wines worked with the food, such as a 2012 Château Darzac Entre-deux-Mers with a gingery butternut squash velouté and a 2011 Louis Latour Marsannay with a duck breast in a Cabernet reduction brightened with pomegranate. And if none of the vintages were particularly exciting, the $45-per-person price tag for the pairings was eminently reasonable for the quality of the wines poured.
Even if the Avilas aren't breaking any new ground culinarily, they seem to know their audience, and dinner at Le Cep feels like a special event. It's the kind of experience - charmingly formal yet comfortable and unpretentious - that's increasingly hard to find.
Part of me feels like they could well be onto something.
Le Cep (3 stars)
Price: $$$-$$$$ (Eight-course tasting menu $85 per person, $45 per person for wine pairing; four-course tasting menu $45 per person, $30 per person for wine pairing; cheese supplement $15 per person. The four-course menu is available only Tuesday-Friday.)
Service: Professional and formal, yet relaxed and friendly
Ambience: A serene and comfortable dining room with a contemporary feel and well-spaced, white-linen-covered tables
Noise level: Music plays softly enough so that conversation is easy.
Location: 3324 W. Seventh St., Fort Worth; 817-900-2468; leceprestaurant.com
Hours: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., with the last seating at 9:30
Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Wine only. The midsize, mostly French list focuses on familiar producers. It's not very adventurous, but prices are reasonable and there's plenty a wine lover will want to sip. Eight wines are offered by the glass.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor