Each year, in July, the excellent Web site Theme Park Insider announces its awards for excellence in various categories among the country's theme parks. Best theme park restaurant is one of the categories.
This year, all five finalists are in Orlando theme parks, so TPI founder and editor, Robert Niles, has asked me to post my reviews of those restaurants for his readers, as well as readers of the flog here. I don't have a say in selecting the winner, that's up to you. At the end of each review, I'll give you a link to TPI's listing for that restaurant so you can vote or leave a comment. Robert will announce the winner on July 4th.
The final finalist: Les Chefs de France.
The Orlando area is home to myriad restaurants owned or licensed by “celebrity” chefs. We have two by bam-king Emeril Lagasse (Emeril’s Orlando and Emeril’s Tchoup Chop); Wolfgang Puck Cafe; Norman Van Aken’s Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton; Todd English’s bluezoo; Melissa Kelly’s Primo; and, this fall, Kouzzina by Cat Cora, a partnership between the Iron Chef and Walt Disney World.
But the area is also home to a restaurant whose owners include not only one of the most famous chefs in the world but arguably the first celebrity chef the world ever knew. Ironically, his name is not on the restaurant, Les Chefs de France. Even more ironic is that Paul Bocuse became famous because, in 1965, he was the first chef to put his name on his restaurant outside Lyons.
Before that, chefs were no more than hired kitchen help. Restaurants were owned by the maitre ‘d or the hotels where they were located.
Its difficult to comprehend in these days of celebrity chefs like those mentioned above that the chef once had no say even about which produce would be bought, let alone how the restaurant would be run. And today, when we have show kitchens that place the cooks right in a restaurant’s dining room, try to imagine a time when the cooks were kept in basement kitchens and rarely saw sunlight.
Bocuse once wrote: “These chefs -- the word means boss, not cook -- directed impressive brigades of assistants, but spent their professional lives in basement kitchens, rarely seeing the sun and consoling themselves with the sherry bottle that brought them to the tomb at age 50.”
So it could be said there would be no celebrity chefs, no show kitchens, no such thing as “Top Chef” and no one would give a flip what Gordon Ramsay had to say if Paul Bocuse hadn’t done what he did 44 years ago.
So there is a sense of history associated with Chefs de France, as well as its sister restaurant and upstairs neighbor, Bistro de Paris, at Epcot’s France pavilion. Bocuse opened the restaurant along with Roger Verge, whose restaurant in France is a favorite of stars attending the Cannes Film Festival, and the late Gaston Lenotre, who was famous for his pastries.
No, the dining experience at Chefs de France is not even remotely similar to one at Paul Bocuse, which still stands on the river Saone. The dinner I enjoyed there several years ago remains one of my top five favorites. But the experience here is enjoyable and comparable to one you might have in Paris, that is, if Parisians deigned to dine in tacky t-shirts and pushed massive strollers into the dining room (don’t get me started).
The Epcot restaurant mimics a classic brasserie. There are touches of wood and polished brass, massive mirrors and a floor of tiny tiles. The lighting is bright and glowing, and the atmosphere bustles.
The food here is very good, although that was not always the case. When Chefs de France first opened with the theme park, the limitations of the kitchen allowed for food that was little more than glorified banquet fare. But a new kitchen was installed several years ago under the direction of Bocuse’s longtime executive chef Bruno Vrignon. The expanded facilities allow the cooks to do more a la minute preparations.
On a recent visit my guest and I started with two classics: cassoulette d’escargots de Bourgogne au beurre persille (translation: snails) and assiette campagnarde, an assortment of pates and charcuteries ($9.95). The half-dozen snails were baked in a small casserole, each in its own impression, with garlic butter and parsely. They were firm but not tough, and the butter they left behind in the dish was perfect for sopping up with the bread.
The pates and meats were mildly flavored; the portion was larger than I expected, enough to make a small entree.
For my entree I chose the broiled salmon ($27.95), a classic Provencal preparation with a delicious tomato bearnaise and a side of ratatouille and a single, simple boiled potato. The salmon was an impressive fillet, thick and tender and cooked perfectly -- one of the nicer pieces of fish I’ve had in a while.
My friend selected the canard au miel ($$31.95), roasted breast of duck and leg confit served with snappy green beans and a rather bland sweet potato puree. I liked the duck very much, but I liked my salmon better.
For dessert, the lemon tart with meringue was a just-right blend of sweet and tangy tastes.
By the way, Chefs de France offers a three-course prix fixe menu for $37, which, comparatively, is one of the best deals among the various Epcot restaurants.
Roger Verge rarely comes to the restaurant anymore; health problems keep him at home in France. But Bocuse still visits regularly. (He maintains a home in Florida, and his son, Jerome, oversees the Florida operations.) In fact, I would be willing to wager that he visits his Florida restaurant more than Todd English and Wolfgang Puck visit the area restaurants that bear their names. And the 80-something Bocuse is older than their two ages combined, I would guess.
Both would do well to take a lesson from the man who paved the way to stardom for them: If you’re going to put your name on a restaurant, you’d better make sure the restaurant does your name proud. The same is true even if your name isn’t over the door.
Even thought Epcot effectively closes following the completion of Illuminations, 9:20 p.m. or so, guests still dining at Chefs de France are not hurried out the door. It's wonderful to linger over dessert, then stroll out of the near-empty park with the strains of concertina in the air.
To vote for Les Chefs de France as the best restaurant, visit Theme Park Insider.