FORT WORTH — Sipping a pastis or a glass of Chablis on the terrace at Saint-Emilion, nibbling olives, looking up at the restaurant’s vine-covered facade with its flower-filled window boxes and shutter-framed windows, it’s easy to imagine you’re on vacation in a small town in southwest France.
Step inside and take in the close-set white-clothed tables, the hanging copper pans on the wall over the small open kitchen, the scent of garlic and thyme, a gentle sizzle from stoves. A white-aproned waiter sets down a roving chalkboard covered in loopy continental script before a well-dressed older couple and narrates — thick accent compris — the evening’s specials.
Who needs a French holiday when we have Bernard Tronche’s 30-year-old restaurant, on the edge of Fort Worth’s Cultural District, so close at hand?
Hors d’oeuvres land when you take a seat: smoked salmon canapés or a little plate of gougères or glasses of crawfish bisque. Don’t call them amuses or look for a list of craft cocktails; this place is the opposite of trendy. There’s a full bar, a nice Petit Chablis by the glass, and Tronche’s mostly French wine list, focused on the reds of his region (he grew up in Libourne, a cork’s toss from the town of Saint-Emilion).
On its best nights, it's the kind of place where a Francophile might want to have a regular table.
To start, you can go simple, as in onion soup gratinée, or a Boston lettuce salade “grand-père” tossed in a good Dijon vinaigrette with lardons and walnuts. There’s an earthy, rustic house-made duck pâté studded with pistachios and served with cornichons and a little potato salad, or buttery, garlicky escargots, served piping hot under caps of puff pastry.
Want to go a little fancier? Ask for the duck foie gras, a carefully seared slab crowning toasted brioche. Kobi Perdue, who came to the restaurant as sous-chef last year and was promoted to chef de cuisine in May, wisely resists the urge to go too sweet on the bright-flavored cherry mostarda that sauces the plate.
The Saint-Jacques du jour — a daily scallop special starter — is worth looking into, as well. One evening the seared scallops came to the table sporting a red pepper pesto that sounded ho-hum but had marvelous flavor, on a swirl of chive oil.
Another night, my friends and I enjoyed a special of salmon rillettes fashioned from fresh and smoked fish. It arrived in a French canning jar with a slew of croutons.
Classic main courses are a good bet here, too, whether it’s a perfect Dover sole meunière presented tableside in its copper pan, then returned after being expertly filleted in the kitchen, or a straightforward steak au poivre — a New York strip done perfectly medium-rare both times we ordered it, bathed in rich Cognac-peppercorn sauce and accompanied by a mountain of skinny frites. Carré d’agneau (rack of lamb) was excellent, too.
One of the best plates, canard rôti et ses frites, is a deliciously roasted half-duck, its honey-glazed skin burnished to crisp mahogany in the wood-burning oven, again with those fries. It has been on the menu since Tronche opened the place in 1985.
Garnishes tended to be fine but forgettable — white beans, squiggles of pea coulis and mint oil with the lamb, spinach in a sherry vinaigrette with the duck.
Just as crazy things can happen on vacation, at Saint-Emilion things don’t always go as planned. One night the kitchen was out of nearly everything my friends and I tried to order: the escargots, a duck special, the daube de boeuf a la provençale, a salmon special, the côte de porc, the carré d’agneau. “Why don’t you just tell us what you have,” I said to the Swiss serveuse, “and we’ll order that.”
As it turned out, the restaurant was about to close for a 10-day holiday, and apparently the chef was trying (successfully!) to use stuff up. Fair enough, but if you’re running low on supplies, it seems worth mentioning when a person calls to book a table (I had called to reserve earlier the same day). In any case, it was definitely time for a vacation, if the two waiters arguing loudly outside the restroom were any indication.
Another night, a different server misunderstood my friend Habib's order of beef daube and brought him Dover sole. (When Habib said "daube," the server heard "Dover," we learned later.) The communication problem was so severe we had to send the $53 fish back not just when it was presented in pan, but again when it reappeared filleted. When things were finally set straight, the daube disappointed. Meant to be a tender, slow braise, this one began either with too lean a cut, or the right cut that wasn't cooked long enough to melt into saucy tenderness.
I never got to taste the côte du porc, a Berkshire chop glazed in "handcrafted maple-sherry-bourbon-oak aged vinegar." The kitchen ran out of it more than once, including on my most recent visit, when the kitchen also sold out of canard en deux façons - duck two ways (confit leg and seared breast) and one or two other things. Fortunately, we had thought to reserve the duck after we were seated, having asked if they were in danger of running out of anything (live and learn!). Perhaps it's because regulars tend to eat early there, but ordering what you'd like when you're seated at 8 shouldn't be such a problem. Alas, the confit was too salty both times I sampled it.
Save for a good Tête de Moine (properly shaved using a spiral slicer), the cheese selection didn't rise above supermarket quality. And there's a wide array of desserts, but many could be improved, including the simplest, the berry tarts - dragged down by their mediocre (stiff, hard) crusts.
Happily, the floating island is nearly perfect - a puffy cloud of meringue in a puddle of spot-on crème anglaise (a pond rather than a puddle would be even nicer). Or go for the tarte Tatin, a B-plus rendition that gets flambéed at the table - so showy and fun. With a glass of Armagnac or Calvados, it's even better.
Go ahead - live a little. After all, you're on vacation.
Saint-Emilion (3 stars)
Price: $$$-$$$$ (appetizers, soups and salads $5.50 to $15, main courses $28 to $55, desserts $10 to $12.50, with a minimum charge of $35 per diner for food)
Service: Old-school formal-ish
Ambience: The small dining room (white tablecloths, roving chalkboards, copper pans decorating the walls of a tiny adjacent open kitchen) evokes an auberge in the French countryside. It's not exactly fancy, but diners dress. (A dress code prohibits shorts and T-shirts.)
Noise level: Medium; small tables facilitate conversation.
Location: 3617 W. Seventh St., Fort Worth; 817-737-2781; saint-emilionrestaurant.com.
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 5:30 to 9 p.m., or later, if people make later reservations
Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar. A clunky electronic, mostly French wine list focuses on the reds of Saint-Emilion, with many attractive choices between $50 and $60. The selection of whites is more spare.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor