For centuries France has been renowned for its culinary panache. American chef Julia Child made note of this in her memoir, “My Life in France,” when she wrote: “In France, cooking is a serious art form and a national sport.”
Contributed significantly to Western cuisines, the criteria for French cooking has become a standard in American culinary schools. While a learned chef can absolutely create flavors and pairings within French standards, in Wilmington we have a host of authentic French chefs who have that natural je nais se quoi thanks to roots growing in and of the culture itself.
Through a discerning lens, I’ve found three chefs emblematical of Child’s observation. Drawing inspiration from their hometowns, these restaurateurs have brought the art of French cuisine to our own culinary scene and in three different forms. It would be careless to simply call their eateries “French restaurants.” Under closer examination—and without all the pretenses and misconceptions that come with the old-school stereotypes of fussy dining—these three Frenchies have become authentic staples to Wilmington’s diet: a crêperie, a café and a bistro. Bon appétit.
There are certain notions of pretention and expense that has put fine dining out of reach for many. However, Caprice Bistro eschews stuffiness and puts the customer first by offering a casual dining atmosphere, fast service, generous portions and prices that won’t hurt the wallet.
From the heavy drapery hanging over the entrance reminiscent of Parisian bistros, to the intimate upstairs sofa bar with a New-York lounge feel, the 10 Market Street locale has the appeal of a big city restaurant. Yet, its heart and mission is to work against the stereotype that French food is intimidating and expensive. Chef Thierry Moity, from his small hometown of Nantua, France, has succeeded doing so in Wilmington.
“I’ve been in this country for many years,” he says, “but I cannot forget where I’ve come from. I like to keep the price as low as we can. I don’t want the perception that we are expensive—it would go against my grain [as] I come from a very poor background.”
The “big city feel” of Caprice can be attributed to the fact that Moity and his wife, Patricia successfully ran restaurants in Charlotte, NC, and New York City, where regulars included the likes of Robert De Niro and Malcolm Forbes. They ventured into Wilmington in 2001, opening Caprice and stamping themselves quintessentially authentic on our culinary scene.
Moity’s passion for cooking began when he was 13, baking pastries with his grandmother. He later spent his youth apprenticing for chefs all over Europe, adopting diverse styles of French cuisine.
Moity recalls, “I worked in very expensive restaurants in France and New York, but when it came time to open my own, my wife and I wanted to make it bistro [style].”
Caprice’s bistro-nomy is influenced by a combination of traditional cuisines from the northern part of France near the Belgium border, and the central provinces of the country. Every dish on Caprice’s menu is vital and vibrant, but Moity’s favorite is a Northern France specialty, “Waterzooi.” The medley of mussels, shrimp, scallops, salmon, mushrooms and herbs, served simmering in a light, buttery cream broth, is unlike another dish in town.
Moity gives credit of his food’s success to the creativity allowed by cooking within the boundaries of traditional bistro standards. “Filet mignon, foi gras, truffle, and caviar—that’s easy, high-class cooking,” he explains. “It’s more difficult to cook bistro style, with cheaper ingredients and make it taste great. If you do it right, it’s more tasty and flavorful.”
Moity is doing it right.
Our Crêpes and More
Off Oleander Drive a block from the mall, Our Crêpes and More specializes in homemade French fare in a casual mien. Under the guidance of Chef Sylvain Marguerat and his wife, Jacqueline, Our Crêpes has managed to keep the excitement of quality French food and serve it at an affordable price.
A national dish in France, crêpes are made by pouring a liquid-y batter onto a flat circular hot plate. They’re then spread evenly over its surface paper-thin, before being served fresh off the hot plate and usually stuffed with savory or sweet fillings.
Marguerat’s love for crêpes date back to his childhood, where he grew up in Amiens, Picardie, France. After graduating from cooking school in the South of France, he moved his family to Wilmington in 2009 to open his dream restaurant.
“I come from a large French family,” Marguerat says, “so my grandmother had a full-time cook, [and] crêpes were one of her specialties. She would literally make piles of them for me and all my cousins. It was always there with me and in my family.”
As its name suggests, there is more to this restaurant than crêpes. There are an array of sandwiches, salads and homemade sorbets made with fresh fruit. As far as crêpes go, customers can choose among many. On the savory side, there is The Tahiti, made with curry chicken, pineapple, raisins and sliced almonds, and topped with salted whipped cream. The Provencale comes with housemade ratatouille, a French staple, made with chicken, black olives and cheese. On the sweet side, Marguerat recommends The Versailles.
“Both my daughters created The Versailles one afternoon by adding all their favorites things—fresh strawberries and banana—and topping it with vanilla ice cream, homemade whipped cream, Nutella and homemade strawberry syrup.”
Cafés are easy to find in France; in Paris, they’re practically at every corner. With the invention of the café, Europeans have made leisure time an art form—cozy atmospheres, ripe for good conversation, and just as suited for alone time, an incarnation that coffeehouses in America have been borrowing from for years. The authentic French café in Wilmington rests in perfect view of the Cape Fear River, located on the riverwalk, no less, off Water Street.
As if plucked from the heart of Paris, Le Catalan provides perfect opportunity for intimate gatherings, stimulating coffee and plenty of wine—all paired with a picturesque view of water and downtown sunsets. From the menu, down to the style of the table and chairs, Chef Pierre Penegre has a close eye for detail in keeping the spirit of his country alive in Le Catalan.
“What we try to achieve here is to be an authentic café, as defined by what a café is in France,” Penegre explains. “It is a place that is open throughout the day, serving a very simple and limited menu, [consisting of] one or two of each soup, salad, entrée and desert. A café is much different from a restaurant or bistro.”
Le Catalan gets its name and dishes from Penegre’s hometown of Perpignan in French Catalonia, located in the South of France by the Spanish border. Offering light fare, such as gazpacho, ratatouille, quiche, cheese plates and homemade sorbet, Le Catalan also offers heartier entrées that vary with the season. During cooler months, Penegre’s take on comfort food will welcome items like white bean, sausage and duck casseoulet. Always, fresh coffee, espresso and cappuccino are offered to warm the soul.
Where this quaint space really succeeds in its grand wine selection. In France, wine is as significant and fulfilling as the meal it accompanies—and without any associations that only the elite enjoy it. Often, there doesn’t need to be a meal at all when the perfect wine is involved. Le Catalan continues that tradition while encouraging its customers to expand their palate and knowledge of vino. Thus, Penegre is a certified Wine Oenologist, from the Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts School in Paris. He offers his expertise to assist customers in discovering the perfect pairings and especially evolving their own tastes and flavors. Some even plan a private wine tasting with Penegre—always a welcoming journey here.