embrace of French character and class
by Mike Taylor
about, and dining at, restaurants such as Le Fou Frog,
theres always the compulsion considering the expense involved
to say whether the cost was worth it or not.
At Mano and Barbara Rafael's eight-year-old French bistro, 400
E. 5th St, a dinner could easily cost more than $50 per person,
without wine or cocktails. And some might find the portions
My friend Karen the caterer expressed amazement when her entrée
arrived one evening. She surveyed the single pieces of grilled
vegetables dotting the square white plate around her entrée
and exclaimed, "Half a Brussels sprout! Who would serve half
a Brussels sprout? Excuse me! I'm insulted."
But dining at Le Fou Frog is worth it as far as I'm concerned.
A lot of allowances have to be made in a restaurant with a name
that translates into "the crazy Frenchman". I can accept smaller
portions of the food Le Fou Frog serves. The menu lists some
of the most exotic ingredients found in this area, uniquely
prepared and served artistically. I'll accept that those vegetable
pieces were garnishes rather than a side dish.
The Rafaels have created a little piece of his native Marseilles
with food, music and a vibrant atmosphere inside a low-slung
cinderblock building two blocks east of the City Market. With
"this bistro" and "bistro that" across the restaurant landscape
these days, featuring who-knows-what kind of food, the Rafaels
operate a true bistro from the butcher paper covering white
tablecloths to the raucous clatter filling the small dining
room to the simply prepared dishes served elegantly.
The music live at times begins early in the evening when
the first customers arrive. Servers yell at each other and customers
across the room. Despite the dim lights, it's a good people-watching
scene with a diverse demographic. The flurry of activity raises
the conversation level in volume and intensity.
Tuna Rolled in Pepper Corn Thyme surrounded with Chive
(photo by Sam Garcia)
A printed menu describes the soups, salads and more than a dozen
hot and cold appetizers. Hand-printed chalkboards list the evening's
entrees. Its an extravagant list of nearly a dozen fish and
seafood dishes along with more than a dozen other dishes, ranging
from chicken breasts and KC Strips to rabbit loin and kangaroo.
(For a sample menu go to www.lefoufrog.com
During my visits, our party tasted kangaroo, rabbit, venison,
prawns, Blue Trevally Snapper and Onaga fish along with Rafael's
versions of beef, chicken and lamb.
We tried to combine soup, salad and hor d'oeuvres for our first
course when we dined there. We tried the French Onion Soup ($5.75)
and a lobster bisque ($6.50). The French onion soup made with
veal stock tasted sweet and rich just as expected. The bisque
had a harsh bite that overwhelmed the lobster flavor.
I could eat Coquilles St. Jacques Gratinee ($11.50) for dessert
rather than as an appetizer. The scallop, leek and mushroom
concoction baked in Gruyere cheese was my favorite. Our parties
also made short work of escargot ($8.95), Salmon Tartare ($15)
and steamed mussels ($8.95) on different evenings. Eight-year-old
Angie tried a snail reluctantly, after watching the rest of
us eat them without displaying ill effects. Afterwards, she
said, "It was ok," with an expression suggesting that eating
snails was an accomplishment she would not repeat for awhile.
As I said, the entrée menu presents a range not found in many
restaurants. Our parties tried a wide variety with satisfaction
all around. One night, I had four plump diver scallops over
risotto with a roasted yellow tomato sauce spiced with ginger
($26). The acid sauce and the smoke from the grill heightened
the flavor of the sweet, satiny scallops.
Emily had rabbit loin stuffed with a lobster and truffle oil
dressing served with garlic mashed potatoes ($26) one evening.
All the flavors combined for a decadent dish with a hint of
gaminess. All the dishes we ordered were perfectly prepared
with obviously fresh and high quality ingredients.
The desserts too provide diners a sample of true French cooking.
Along with a selection of classic French pastries such as the
cream puff-like Profiteroles and the flourless Marquis chocolate
cake, the bistro gives diners a selection of homemade ice creams
and sorbets as well as vanilla crème Brulee and a caramel flan
puddings. We enjoyed the warm Profiteroles ($8) with its fluffy
pastry surrounding a scoop of flavorful ice vanilla cream doused
in a decadent chocolate sauce. We also tried a less-sweet apple
tart with tangy al dente apple slices under a flaky crust accompanied
by ice cream and a caramel sauce. Both fine ways to cap a unique
While the servers were all well versed about the menu and attentive,
their slips dampened our pleasure two of the times we were there.
One evening, the server completely forgot the salads we ordered
between the appetizers and our entrees. The blunder made for
a long wait between courses. She made up for the omission by
giving us the desserts free.
Allowances can be made for such service in such a raucous atmosphere
with difficult acoustics. And the uniqueness of the ingredients
prepared superbly by Chef Rafael forgives what some may consider
skimpy portions. I enjoyed my dining experiences at Le Fou Frog
and I know it's the closest I'll get to Marseilles in the near