I thought I had my review of Voilà French Café nailed not three and a half minutes after I walked through the door. Instantly upon arrival I was put off by so many things: the name, for starters; the clumsy, home-computer cut-and-paste of the jacketless paper menus; the plastic straws in the water glasses; the TV set in the corner silently showing the Cards game (I realize in St. Louis you have to give this to a restaurant, but come on, a French place?); the neon "OPEN" sign in the window (though really, this is another concession you've got to make for an establishment set way back from the street, on a noncommercial strip of Euclid, on the lobby floor of a residential high-rise); and most of all, the absolute emptiness of the place. It's nine o'clock on a Saturday, and ain't no regular crowd shuffling in. In fact, there are only two other diners in the restaurant.
Sure, the place is plenty French-feeling. The tablecloths are white linen, the café-style chairs straight out of the Café Deux Magots on Paris' artsy-fartsy Boulevard Saint-Germain, the walls crowded with myriad framed impressionist artworks. The room boasts not one but two pianos. But something still felt strange, unsettling, unpleasant, off. It wasn't like visiting a restaurant; it was like reluctantly attending a restaurant's wake.
I already knew that Voilà was operating under a somewhat cursed managerial streak. Not four months ago it was functioning under the same ownership and the name Lindell Terrace Café and Bar, which had borne the unfortunate luck of debuting right after September 11, 2001. For more than two years, business registered perilously close to flat-lining. In a press release issued not long before the Lindell-to-Voilà metamorphosis this past spring, it was announced that local chef Philippe Habassi, Paris-raised and owner of the lovely Le Petit Paris on South Grand, would be top-dogging the kitchen. But Habassi backed out three weeks after Voilà opened its doors (for reasons his publicist declines to detail).
I read through the menu, which begins with a paragraph about how "everything in life is moving a little too fast" and that we should "take the opportunity to experience the Voilà French Café in the French way." Which apparently means that we should "Relax. Have fascinating conversations. Have audacious romances.... Savor every bite." Ick.
I had to give Voilà credit for sticking steadfastly to traditional French cuisine, from ratatouille to vichyssoise, Châteaubriand to entrecôte -- none of the "French-influenced" cheating many restaurants lay claim to, hiding the fact that all they really offer is plain-old New American. Still, I refused to believe the place could be any good at all. And after I took a gander at the bread basket -- its contents clearly purchased in bulk and stocked in the freezer -- I actually said out loud, "This food isn't going to be good at all."
The food is amazing.
The lusciousness that impregnated nearly every single bite at this restaurant is a feat I have rarely witnessed paralleled in this city. The decadent sauces, the supple cuts of meat, the exacting seasoning, the merry interplay of flavors -- quite frankly, it was almost too much to bear. "Shut-up good," was how one friend rightly put it.
How happy I was, devouring forkfuls of verte aux noix et figues, a salad of mixed field greens tossed with dried (but not dry) figs and toasted walnuts, coated with a Roquefort vinaigrette that permeated the mouth with smoky bleu-cheese flavor! How lustfully did I swoon over salade d'oeuf aioli, which mated simple greens below with dollops of deviled egg cradled in medallions of hard-boiled egg whites above! How close to divinity did I feel, swallowing whole the stuffed mushrooms Parisienne, which had been sautéed unapologetically in butter and stuffed unabashedly with crab meat! How I wish I could find the words to do Voilà's food the eloquent, mellifluous justice it deserves!
I struggled to compose myself before the entrées arrived, only to lose control all over again seconds after they did. This time, meat proved my undoing, as each cut of beef, lamb, and duck struck me as the beau ideal of fleshy, pink-centered bliss, each laden in its own heavenly sauce, as all classic French dishes ought to be. Many entrées were accompanied by -- get this! -- home-fried potatoes, which I wanted to stuff in my pockets, chaperone down Kingshighway to Uncle Bill's, and shove, nanny-nanny-boo-boo-style, into the poor faces of whatever short-order cooks happened to be working that shift. I loved that a trio of warmed orange slices found its way onto the margins of most main dishes, a garnish I giddily enjoyed. I started to think the amateurishly produced menu, such a focal point of my immediate scorn, was now the stuff of wisdom. "Entrecôte à la bordelaise, tender ribeye grilled to order and served with a beautiful bordelaise sauce": Yes, yes! Tender, beautiful! Mais oui! Mon Dieu!
By dessert Voilà's menu was on its victory lap. A warm chocolate bread pudding, ordered off the menu, possessed a pulpy texture, as if you weren't just eating chocolate and bread but the tender dark meat of an animal made of chocolate and bread. A quartet of profiteroles came with a heavy, cold, custardlike vanilla cream in each pastry's center, flanked by a healthy dose of airier cream on the plate. It was a tremendous dénouement to the meal.
I spent several days rhapsodizing about Voilà's food to anyone within earshot, then called the place to find out who on earth was manning the stoves there. Was it even possible that Voilà's management had found a chef even more marvelous than Habassi? Had I happened upon the Best New Chef of 2003?
Voilà French Café has no chef.
Since Habassi's sudden departure, the management has yet to settle on a replacement. In the meantime, according to co-owner John Green, Voilà is operating with a cook, but without a chef. Green says that at one point somebody even called in a favor and got Burt Reynolds' personal chef (I kid you not) up from Florida for a week to work on the menu. When a new chef is brought in, Green adds, Voilà may undergo yet another name-and-menu change. It may even go Italian. For now the situation is so uncertain that when he learned that the RFT was going to run a review of the place, Green fretted that he'd have to expand his hours of operation to Thursday through Sunday the week the piece got published. (Needless to say, reservations are recommended.)
All of which, as far as I'm concerned, only serves to make the place that much more precious and worthwhile right now. I often say that food alone is not what makes or breaks a restaurant. I often say that good food -- even great food -- matters little if service and atmosphere are lacking. Voilà has proved itself the exception to the rule. Not only do I plan to go back there for the food, but the food is so worthwhile and joyous that I now think Voilà charmingly unpolished. I get a kick out of the kind but weak service, unknowledgeable and at times inexplicably absent. I laugh good-naturedly at the unforgivably insufficient wine list, a meager hodgepodge of cheap selections. I do want to have fascinating converstions and audacious romances. I root for Voilà. I want it to mature; I want it to succeed.