Bistro de Leon
Tucked away on Cathedral Place across from the Plaza in St. Augustine’s historic district, Jean Stephane Poinard serves up la cuisine de meres “French home cuisine”. To your left upon entering Bistro de Leon is a tantalizing display case filled with tarts and other fresh baked desserts. To your right and further into the dining area’s interior, intimate yet unpretentious tables await.
Both Chef Poinard and his wife Valerie stand ready to serve either a quiet candlelit table for two or join several of these small tables together for a convivial party of 15. And that’s exactly what happens on any given night where dining ‘a la Francais’ reigns supreme. In France, dining is far from being a mere interruption in your daily routine but rather the main event with artful preparation and enjoyment of the meal taking center stage. Chef Poinard’s primary goal is to promote this experience in St. Augustine.
A 5th generation chef originally from Lyon, France, Chef Poinard chooses the freshest local seafood, herbs and produce. In his kitchen there is no pre-prepared or frozen food shortcuts…only dishes using the freshest locally sourced ingredients possible. According to Poinard, a member of Les Toques Blanches Lyonnaises, an elite fraternity of chefs, “When you cook, you have to love people. My cuisine is like a symphony and I cook to the rhythms of music. I don’t make my food adapt to me…I get a feeling for the food that’s the freshest I can procure.”
His 3-course menu is offered at a set price daily. It is customary in France to trust the Chef to decide what you will enjoy. Ordering ‘a la carte’ (from the card) means you have selected dishes that are only prepared upon ordering.
Bread is big here reflecting its importance in the French dining experience. Rather than being served as something to nibble on while waiting for the main course, it is an integral part of the entire meal. Use it to soak up that last drop of port reduction sauce or pair it with cheese.
In the middle of your meal, you’ll invariably enjoy Granite de vin rouge a la creme de cassis, a traditional aperitif made with red wine and blackcurrent cream served in a small shot-sized glass. Both red and white “Pot Lyonnais” house wines are served in special carafes which have an interesting story behind them. In 1850′s Lyon, silk traders paid their workers with liters of wine. Deceiving the workers, they invented this special carafe with a very thick bottom giving the “pot ” only 46 cl instead of 50 cl (half a liter).
Even if you’re not in St. Augustine, you’ll have the opportunity to join Chef Jean-Stephane Poinard’s French Connection Celebration of Beujolais Nouveau scheduled for Nov. 18th at NYC’s James Beard House.
Consider yourself family when dropping by Sara’s Crepes. First you’ll pass through an outdoor courtyard leading into the cafe. Owner Margarita Abramov is eager to share her passion for Russian culture and how it shapes her fresh made crepes.
The dining area’s ambiance is just as important here as the food. Authentic Russian folk art like hand carved and ornately painted wooden Khokhloma adorns the interior. Eastern European music plays in the background and occasional footage of the Georgian Legend, a choreographed music and dance show retracing centuries-old dance and music from Georgia (Russia that is), may be showing on the wall mounted plasma TV.
Ask Margarita why she opened her shop here on the corner of Hypolita and Spanish Streets in St. Augustine and she’ll tell you that since arriving in the U.S. from Russia in 1978, she always dreamt of someday running her own café and sharing her love of cooking and entertaining family. Last year, she turned that dream into reality opening in honor of her grandmother Sara’s 100th birthday and immortalizing her favorite dessert crepes served with sour cream and fresh strawberry preserves. “When grandmother knew I was coming to visit, she prepared these! From sweet to savory, Sara’s Crepe Café brings the tradition of grandmother’s homemade breakfast, entrée and dessert crepes to St. Augustine.”
Throughout the day, all of Margarita’s crepes and Belgian waffles are made with as many locally sourced ingredients as possible. After watching her staff prepare the tender airy crepes in the open kitchen, I learned that proper technique and perfect timing made all the difference in what I tasted. Now Margarita has an all new menu which adds Perogies and build-your-own wraps to the mix.
Where else can you dine in the deep end of a pool? Lucky for you, the water was drained out long ago in the early 1930′s but the remainder of what was once a 3-floor casino (entertainment venue) and health spa is now preserved as the Lightner Museum and Cafe. The entire complex completed in 1888 by Henry Flagler, was called the Alcazar and served elite guests of world famous Ponce DeLeon Hotel.
Walking each floor today is like passing through a time capsule filled with priceless heirlooms like Waterford crystal and opulent furniture collected by O.C. Lightner during his turn of the century world travels. Vintage photos provide glimpses of how active this place bustled with synchronized swimming, water polo, acrobatics & even high dive competitions from a third floor ballroom balcony.
Fast forward to 2007 when owner George Chryssaidis along with business partner and friend Yeorgios Kostopoulos made dining in this once-upon-a-time entertainment palace a special event. Either classical guitar or grand piano music is performed daily accompanying those who try out their extensive lunch menu. Favorites include a Sesame Shrimp Appetizer, homemade soups like Classic Greek Angelemono, seafood and seasonally inspired entrees, and house made desserts like Crème Brulee cheesecake.
Lately I have been shocked by how my favorite candy bars as a youth taste so differently than what I remembered. Without a doubt, mass produced chocolate has never been sweeter or less flavorful. And after having the honor of visiting Claude’s St. Augustine chocolate shop as well as touring their Pontra Verde location where Claude Franques and his wife Nicole hand craft these tasty morsels, my cocoa suspicions were confirmed. Modified ingredients like vanillin and cocoa butter have increasingly taken the place of actual vanilla and cacao. Chocolate makers are under extreme pressure to use cheaper artificial flavorings. But not Claude’s Chocolate. Each batch of artisan European-style chocolates is made by hand. The deep aroma of rich Belgian chocolate is unmistakable immediately upon entering the store.
Originally from Toulouse France, Claude’s passion shows through not only in the intriquitely unique design of each candy but through artful combinations of flavorful ganache (interiors) and the genuine dark or milk chocolate coatings. Nuts like pecans and hazelnuts are painstakingly roasted on site and Claude personally selects the accompanying fillings. His 24 varieties range from Cognac Truffle, Dark Heart of Passion Fruit, to Earl Grey Tea and Key Lime. My favorite are the chewy caramels coated in dark chocolate and hand sprinkled with sea salt. At Claude’s, it’s all about quality instead of quantity. Buy their 24 piece assortment for $28 and you’ll easily be satisfied with one for dessert each night. That’s almost a month’s worth of tasty chocolate!
Story and photos courtesy of Steve Mirsky. Coverage made possible by participating in a sponsored trip.