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We'll always have Paris 

At Café Monte, food trumps trendiness

If you spend a lot of time in American cities that have long-established neighborhood eateries serving well-crafted regional American food at affordable prices, the lack of these establishments throughout Charlotte feels pronounced.

Notably though, Plaza Midwood, NoDa and perhaps even Elizabeth -- all organically developed neighborhoods -- seem to continuously reward these food seekers. In other areas, places may offer one component, but not the other: casual and locally owned, but prices command the platinum.

Yet whenever a place opens that has "bistro" in its moniker, hope is renewed. Thus, when the 120-seat Café Monte French Bakery and Bistro opened in SouthPark, neighborhood folks were hoping for a spot with fabulous food at reasonable prices.

A French bakery in SouthPark? Once opened, throngs stormed the doors at both breakfast and lunch. (OK, not stormed, but I like the Bastille imagery.) Local baker and consultant Magid Amanpour set up the baking program. Currently breads, croissants, pastries, pizzas, and desserts designed to be ogled are headliners. After several weeks, Café Monte extended the hours into evenings.

Partners Monte Smith and Chef Justin Mendenhall remodeled a space, once an art gallery, into a place fit for an Edith Piaf revival. You can't help but hum a few bars of "La Vie en Rose" while perusing the menu. No need to pull out the middle school French, though. This one is written in English.

Café Monte captures la Belle Époque without feeling Disneyfied. Entry tiles of tumbled Italian marble open unto a small covey of cocktail tables and a right bank of pastry display cases. Designed by Katherine Alexander and local artist Paul Russo, the main dining-area walls sport blown-up postcards from the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, which glorified the architecture of L'Art Nouveau. Alternately, drama is created by large mirrors framed in dark wood reflecting the patrons. The only drawback is the piecing light from car headlights that periodically disrupts the ambiance of the dining room.

On one early visit, we hadn't been in our seats but a few minutes before the discourse began. Were the seats too low or the banquettes too high? Where's the foie gras? On the menu were the usual suspects: onion soup gratinée, crepes, quiche, and French toast. But no duck à l'orange or tarte Tatin. It's damned if they do, and damned if they don't. French cuisine, that cuisine that first brought the world restaurants, is a popular whipping boy. Yet while hotbeds of culinary invention will not cut it in recessionary times, traditional, albeit archaic, cooking will always have an audience if the technique is sound.

And the technique is sound here. Chef partner Mendenhall is a Charlottean who first met Smith when the latter was the general manager for Palm Restaurant. Mendenhall became a line cook for that steak house while still in high school. He then moved to Manhattan and worked in Tom Valenti's Ouest and Terrance Brennan's Picholine and Artisanal Fromagerie, Bistro & Wine Bar. Mendenhall returned to Charlotte with another steak house, but joined forces with Smith to open Café Monte in April 2008.

The little crock of onion soup arrives and tastes like onion soup while the thin-cut frites are a duplicate of those served in Parisian brasseries. Maybe not like L'Ami Louis, but then the servers at Monte are not haughty either. Heck, they are downright friendly, y'all. But a few members of the team at Café Monte seem almost ADD in their service: forgetful and distracted: "Oh. Did you both want entrees?"

My dining companion's face fell when he took in the small (six-ounce) filet served on the steak and frite entree. Traditionally, French butchers find a lesser, but larger, cut of meat like onglet or hanger steak -- since the whole idea behind French bistros is value. This dish was $21. The chicken, though, is a deal. Ten bucks buys a half poulet rôti with cracking skin and an infusion of herbs. Mussels were standard issue; the quiche first rate. Care is taken in the adroitly dressed pristine green salad with thin slices of Belgium endive. The generally competent dessert had its strong suit (the lemony crème brûlée, which disappeared in two seconds flat) and a weaker note (berry and peach cobbler with a gummy crust). The short wine list complements the concise menu in scope and price.

Value slipped away at one point this summer with specials running into the $32 range, but Smith has revitalized the menu and reined in specials to the $23 level. "We try to be recession-friendly," he notes. This is good and as a neighborhood bistro should be.

Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, and new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine events? To contact Tricia, send information via e-mail (no attachments, please):

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