One indelible truth about food is that the French do it right.
If you don’t like French food or have never had any good French food, the problem is not you, the particular dish, or the French en masse. You just haven’t gone to the right restaurant or been treated to the techniques of a chef who knows how to handle a chinois.
Understanding and excepting the gluten-freers out there, if you don’t love a fresh baguette, you might not be human.
This summer, my wife and I will giddily celebrate our 25th anniversary with two weeks in France, split between Provence and The Luberon before spending a few days in Paris on the back end. Though I grew up in New York State, I have been to Paris eight times in my life and to New York City just twice, a ratio that I would not trade for the world.
We are not rich enough to be four-times-a-year globetrotters. For two decades, I was just fortunate to work at a school whose endowed travel grant money for teachers was bountiful, and I chaperoned spring break trips to Avignon and Paris several times.
Back in 2012, my old school awarded me a semester’s sabbatical, and my wife and I were fortunate enough to live for two weeks in Sisteron, France, the actual setting of an Elizabethan verse play I was writing. I daydream of the play being performed in Sisteron someday in the amphitheater at the base of la Citadelle. But for now, I will keep grading papers and write about food in Savannah.
As we Googled the globe and talked about where we might go this summer, we made a short list of possible destinations. After all, we’ve only ever been to France, Germany and England, the latter two once each. We thought about going back to St. Thomas/St. John, where we lived from 1993 to 1995 after I landed my first teaching job at Antilles School. We highly considered Lisbon, Corfu, Split and a few other Caribbean islands.
But we kept coming back to France. We want to see the unrivaled blue of the evening sky over the Rhône. We want to walk the ochre paths of Roussillon. We want to stroll past the cornucopian market stands in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. We want to sit on a bench in the Place des Vosges and do nothing.
Most of all, we want to eat. We want the first-of-the-day almond croissants from Maison Violette. We want to polish up a full round of Banon chèvre spread with anchoïade on fresh baguette. We want the cassolette d'escargots at Le Petit Pontoise. We want hazelnut ice cream at Berthillon. More everything.
In anticipation of Le 25th Anniversary Blowout de France, I thought that I might write about the French cuisine available to Savannahians. To be perfectly Franc, it comes down to just two places: Circa 1875 and Auspicious Baking Company. C’est tout, mes amis. That’s all, my friends.
If you didn’t know that you had just stepped off of Whitaker Street in the 31401, Circa 1875 would make you think that you were in the Paris’ 6th Arrondissement. The decor, the music, the romantic snugs set between rich brown woodwork and restored stained glass on the brasserie side, every touch is overtly Parisian without feeling one bit kitschy.
And then the food comes to your table: mon dieu.
Time and again since we moved to town, Circa has consistently served the finest French cuisine I have eaten without having first landed at Charles de Gaulle. We tout it to friends and colleagues as our favorite restaurant in town, and incredibly, people who have lived here twice as long as we have either admit never having been while some genuinely have no idea where Circa is.
Executive Chef David Landrigan has been with Circa since 2010, when owners Jeffrey Downey and Donald Lubowicki decided to add a top-drawer restaurant to the bar they had opened two years prior.
The true measure of a French kitchen comes down to the execution of a few standards, none more deceptively difficult than a poulet rôti: roast chicken. Simple, right? Non. Perfectly cooking a bone-in chicken breast—skin crisped, flesh just north of 160° so that it is finished cooking and hot when the plate slides in front of you—is a masterclass skill, and Landrigan is a master.
In the last nine years, the menu at Circa has changed little because those of us who love it so need to see our favorites as constants. There is nothing cliché about ordering escargots or steak frites when they are superb. My wife’s go-to at Circa is the truite de ruisseau pôelé, a pan-dressed Carolina brook trout served with glazed carrots. The fish itself is butter-tender and flaky, and the carrots are almost the star of the dish because of how perfectly they are prepared. Again, this seems a simple dish, but only because Circa does it flawlessly.
Landrigan, who admits with a grin that the French he took in high school would never be used in his life, says that the main à la carte offerings might not change but that he and his team are “always learning, always reading and are constantly tweaking preparations” to make each dish even better.
For date night, take the cozily private two stools at the bar hidden between two walls. When your folks come into town, sit downstairs in the wine cellar beneath the bistro. By the end of the meal, you will walk upstairs and think that you see the Eiffel Tower hovering over Broughton Street.
It is no secret that the best and most authentically French pastries and breads made in Savannah come from Auspicious Baking Company, whose two-year anniversary will be in June. In that relatively short time, Kaytlin Bryan and Mark Ekstrom have made their croissants, sweet bakes, breads, and crackers must-haves, proven by folks queueing up early every Sunday morning at their little shop on Skidaway Road.
In addition to selling its entire menu onsite, Auspicious outfits fourteen Savannah restaurants and shops with a variety of its tasty pastries, including bread at Brighter Day Natural Foods, crackers at Husk, and almost everything in the glass case at The Paris Market’s Café: très à propos.
Everything at Auspicious is scratch-made by Bryan and Ekstrom and their baking team and are the products of “very European” inspiration, trial, and error. This is to say, you can wander around Lyon and not find anything more authentic.
Their baguette is truly French. Le Décret Pain, the French Bread Law of 1993, decreed that traditional loaves baked and sold in a bakery could contain only four ingredients: flour, water, salt, and yeast. At Auspicious, the baguettes are even more legit as the leavening does not come from active yeast but entirely from a levain starter.
“It’s a three-day process for everything,” said Ekstrom, before greeting another customer by name and then turning back to me, “because you need to build up the flavor.” Being in Auspicious is teleporting to a boulangerie in Provence that you patronize every day, where the baker himself is at the counter. He knows your name and asks how you liked the strawberry-orange curd croissant loaf you bought last Sunday.
While 39 Rue de Jean has the French name and the Charleston pedigree, our two meals there have not felt or tasted remotely Parisian, though the staff and service are phenomenal. On our most recent visit, they split two courses onto separate plates for us; considering we were two diners who ordered no alcohol, that obliging gesture did not go unnoticed.
Even so, despite there being only the two Rue de Jeans, the Savannah location feels like an upscale chain that is in the rez-de-chaussée of a hôtel—probably because it is in the ground floor of a hotel. The escargots were okay. The frites were mostly limp. Our medium burger was well-done. Two of the offered cuts of steak-frites are filet mignon, not common for the dish, and sushi is on the menu. Pardon, quoi?
For patisserie and sandwiches, both Café M and Le Café Gourmet do more than play the Parisian part with house-made baked goods that are tasty.
Café M looks very French: bistro-tight with round faux carrara two-tops and wicker chairs nearly kissing each other beneath eggshell walls and green-tea trim. The house-made patisseries and sandwiches are very good but, owing to its tourist-centric location on Factor’s Walk, are expensive for what you get. The only real inconvenience at Café M is standing in a line of tourists and then hoping to find an open table, which actually completes the Parisian experience.
At Le Café Gourmet, also in a heavy tourist-traffic area off of Franklin Square, even a line of three tends to throw the easily harried staff for a loop, what with only the one crêpe griddle and an interior compact and cluttered with knick-knackery. The crêpes, though, are proper French: traditional buckwheat galettes for the savory ones and white crêpes for the sweets, making the store-bought, from-a-can whipped cream a let down.
In name if not in cuisine, the newest possible French destination in town is Le Petit Abeilles, a Victorian-housed tea room on Barnard. Again, the restaurant’s name is decidedly French, owner-chef Mia Guerin is French, the music playing on the charming front porch is French, but the food and fabric are far more Portsmouth than Paris. The menu headings are Le Brunch and Le Déjeuner, though other than quiche, the offerings are Anglo-American through and through.
In tiny round colorful armies of nearly two-dozen traditional and fun flavors, the bite-sized meringue cookies from Marché de Macarons and the franchise Le Macaron French Pastries have taken over Savannah in the past few years and are légitime in every way. Then again, when I want a cookie, I want more than one bite for less than $3 a bite.
In late July, I will write at least two Dine Savannah articles remotely, from Avignon and Paris. Until then, my wife and I will train for France, happily splitting the superb burger and frites at Circa and devouring as many Auspicious croissants as we can.
Someday, Neil and his wife will be living in a tiny town in the south of France, eating, doing crosswords, and playing Scrabble. For now, when he is not grading papers, baking bread, or watching EPL soccer, he builds furniture and writes.