Le Petit Cafe will give you a reason to beg your parents to visit. Just a mini-van excursion away, Branford’s own French bistro is well worth the twenty-minute ride in the family Privia. The culinary delights of this truly petit cafe more than compensate for the perfunctory twelve-college tour and thorough room examination that inevitably accompany each parental invasion.
Located in a surprisingly charming suburb of New Haven, Le Petit Cafe exudes Frenchness — fortunately, sans the snobbery. With mustard yellow walls and shelves of assorted curio, the decor transports diners from the dinginess of the Elm City to the rustic paradise of a Provencal kitchen. The domestic feel of this restaurant is enhanced by the cozy proximity of the small tables. While dining, we even made friends with our neighbors, Yale Law students no less — living proof of the restaurant’s relaxed ambiance.
The pickled beets and delectable olives that adorn each table foretell the glorious gastronomic experience to come and prepare the stomach for a shameless binge. With thoughtful touches such as clothes pin napkin holders, the restaurant exemplifies the French’s dedication to dining perfection. The arrival of bread, fresh from the oven, and indescribable truffle butter (admittedly, the height of gluttony) further convinces diners of chef Roy Ip’s commitment to authentic bistro fare.
The restaurant serves a prix fixe, four-course meal with a menu to satisfy even the snobbiest foodie. Although not inexpensive, the $42 flat rate goes farther than it would at a typical French restaurant, such as Union League Cafe. The menu boasts extravagant yet approachable haut-cuisine that encourages diners to brave the often-intimidating world of French delicacies (i.e. escargot).
For the first course, the lobster bisque featuring baby lobster delights with its creamy base and unusually generous portion of lobster meat. An incredibly rich start, the weighty bisque forces a premature awareness of your ever-expanding waistline — au revoir, top button! Another excellent first-course option is the escargot, thankfully deshelled, served on a bed of creamy polenta. And Ip’s molluskus, although slimy, were succulent, savory and smothered with enough mushroom sauce to make eating snails sound delectable.
The second course, the singular concession to the nutritionally concerned, is a salad of organic greens in a red wine vinaigrette topped with shavings of parmigiano reggiano. Crisp and refreshing, the salad cleanses the palate and primes for the onslaught of the next course.
The third course offerings not only span the traditional French gamut from duck cassoulet to chicken ballotine but also encompass more adventurous Asian fusion dishes. Chef Roy Ip avoids overzealous concoctions (think tempura filet mignon) that compromise flavor for innovation; instead he favors subtle complements to the already stellar French fare.
The miso-glazed Chilean sea bass exemplifies Ip’s ability to balance novelty and tradition. The sizable steak, accompanied by a well-selected variety of fresh vegetables, is both flavorful and digestible — a welcome escape from the butter-saturation of the previous courses.
The restaurant’s homemade desserts wage the final assault against the tummy. For those with a sweet tooth, the prix fixe charge includes a dessert course and allows for relatively guilt-free indulgence.
From the dessert line up of favored staples, such as crème brulee and apple tart, you can’t go wrong, especially with the flourless chocolate cake — the ultimate chocoholic indulgence. Even for non-chocoholics, the intensity of the usually overwhelming cake is softened by the drizzling of a sweet raspberry sauce. (P.S. Stage a birthday celebration to receive the works. You’ll be amazed by the spun sugar dome in which the cake is festively served but beware: it is highly fragile).
Each of these delicious dishes is presented by a warm and attentive staff that completes an already enjoyable meal. Without an intrusive presence, the wait staff delivered our courses at well-timed intervals and answered questions with both knowledge and pride. At Le Petit Cafe, even college students who bypass the Carte de Vin receive the royal treatment.