By LINDSAY SAKRAIDA
Though the name would lead you to believe otherwise, the erstwhile La Petite France on East Front Street was not French cooking. Not, at least, according to the new chef and owner, Frédéric Vidal.
“I don’t say it was bad, but it wasn’t French,” Vidal says in his thickly accented English. “The problem now is that many people confuse French food and French restaurants.”
Gallic atmosphere may go a long way toward fooling American tastebuds, but the reality, as Vidal sees it, is that “a lot of ‘French’ restaurants don’t serve French food.”
In his view, too many such places have about as much connection to the esteemed history of classic French food as Olive Garden has to authentic Italian. In an attempt to counter this tendency, Vidal, who moved to the U.S. three years ago, last year acquired La Petite France and overhauled its menu so much so that he believed the restaurant needed a new name as well. He’s rechristened it “Bienvenue.”
He now “welcomes” patrons to indulge not only in France’s characteristic ambience but also food from Provence and the southwestern region, where he lived and studied. From the comfort of Red Bank, customers can get taste a regional delicacy perhaps one invented by a “grandmaman” that even Parisians would find scarce in their city.
“I use lots of herbs, basil, garlic, olive oil, not too much cream,” he says, gesturing around his kitchen. Vidal’s home region “is close to Italy, so it looks like in some ways Italian food. But it’s not the same.”
There are the traditional dishes filet mignon, duck confit, crepes, and crème brulee as well as the aforementioned regional foods, including Bouillabaisse, a tomato-based soup from Marseille that is surprisingly rich and replete with several types of Mediterranean fish.
Everything takes hours of painstaking preparation, as all items are purchased in their most basic form and then cut in particular ways or slow-roasted for hours. Frozen prepared or pre-cut ingredients are not welcome in Vidal’s kitchen.
This method adds up to a hefty price tag. A “prix fixe” dinner menu will set you back $35, while the lunch is $20. But true to French culinary philosophy, Vidal says it’s worth every penny.
“I tell the customers all the time, if they say it is good, I say, ‘yeah because it’s long.’ To make quick is no good,” he says with disdain.
Vidal opened his first American restaurant here because there is a customer base that has and is willing to spend the money. Roughly 70 percent of Bienvenue’s clientele is repeat customers.
“When they come one time, they come back,” Vidal says triumphantly.
Vidal has even integrated the community into the corner restaurant’s design: empty wine bottles of famed vineyards and vintages that customers consumed at his tables line the windowsills and shelves near the ceiling of the dining room, which has the feel of 19th-century salon. One such shelf, Vidal claims, holds the remnants of what was once $5,000 worth of wine.
Customers beware though; Vidal is an oenophile and may ask to taste a particularly interesting wine that shows up.
Despite his best attempts at bringing authentic French food to an American audience, there are some restrictions that Vidal just can’t work around. Cheese in America is pasteurized, by law a figurative crime in France. Still, Vidal says he is unconcerned, because Americans don’t know what difference these minute variations that he has always lived with make.
Such constraints aside, Vidal has brought one of the best examples of French cooking to Red Bank, and if customers are unprepared for real French, as opposed to a Disney-like take on it, they may be disappointed.
“But it doesn’t happen very often,” Vidal says with a knowing smirk.