When I interviewed Stéphane Lang-Willar just before his restaurant opened in July, I wondered what the former president of a chain of European restaurants that served mussels would have to say to American diners. He said he wanted to offer something in between chains like Houston's and Seasons 52 and the high-end, ultra-expensive steakhouses that for most of us are special-occasion treats.
Three months later, I can tell you that Lang-Willar has succeeded. It helps that the kitchen at Stéphane's American and French Cuisine is in the very capable hands of chef John Belleme (Max's Grille, Zemi, Opus 5, Henry's), who seems to have an innate understanding of what makes a restaurant dish sing.
Consider Szechwan calamari ($12, $10 at lunch), crisp and sticky, each ring evenly coated with garlic-chili sauce and garnished with chopped peanuts and sesame seeds. The dish disappears from our table. Bite-size crab cakes ($13, $11 at lunch) are presented on a long, rectangular platter in a puddle of spicy, red-pepper remoulade. Spinach and cheese dip ($13, $12 at lunch) isn't just about cheese but offers plenty of spinach. Only French onion soup gratinee ($9, $7 at lunch) disappointed. The broth was too sweet for our tastes.
Most of the time, Stéphane's straddles the American and French seamlessly, and it starts with the 165-seat, stylish but ultimately simple dining room with its striped banquettes and big, comfortable booths, each set with an iPad wine list. There's a long pass-through window into the kitchen, so you never feel far from the action as you watch staff pick up dishes for delivery. The black-topped bar is sexier with lots of black wood and a ceiling that takes a minute to figure out: Those are oversize images of women looking down. The female bartenders and hostesses wear black skirts and keyhole blouses that tastefully hint at French maid.
It would be a shame to leave Stéphane's without trying the mussels that made Lang-Willar's earlier career. They come in 1- and 2-pound sizes, with prices starting at $15 per pound ($13 at lunch) for white wine, celery onions and butter and topping out at $18 per pound for American Way mussels with bourbon, Virginia ham, corn, mustard and crème fraiche. On Mondays, you can have two pounds for the price of one pound. They're all served in simple, black cast-iron pots.
I was so intrigued with the Mumbai preparation ($16 per pound, $14 at lunch) that I couldn't resist the fragrant combination of curry, crème fraiche, parsley and white wine. Thank goodness for the fresh baguette, which I floated in the broth.
Among the small salad starters are frisée with poached egg and bacon ($12, $9 at lunch), which was just a bit overdressed with sherry-mustard vinaigrette but delicious just the same: runny egg mixing with bitter frisée, crunchy garlic-Parmesan croutons and Nueske's applewood smoked bacon. New wedge ($13, $10 at lunch) is topped with roasted grape tomatoes, apples, crispy shallots, Maytag blue cheese and creamy vinaigrette.
On to the entrees. I've been waiting for the very simple Stéphane's bar steak ($24, $20 at lunch) for years. It's a tender, 11-ounce flat-iron steak, each bite of perfectly cooked beef better than the other. Order a side of creamed spinach ($9, $8 at lunch), and you have a perfect meal. A special one night was cedar-planked salmon ($36), which some may consider a throwback, but I think is superb when done this well. It ought to be a regular menu item.
Lang-Willar told me he'd have a hamburger on the menu, and the artisanal cheeseburger ($16, $14 at lunch) is a thing to behold. I suggest ordering it with cheddar and crisp bacon. The bun and accompanying fries will remind you of France. The all-American patty is made from beef raised without antibiotics.
It's hard to believe Stéphane's also serves rotisserie chicken, the very thing the previous restaurant in this spot tried and failed to make a go of. The so-called famous poulet de St. Tropez ($22, $18 at lunch) is a half chicken served with roasted vegetables and potato puree. It's moist and flavorful and nothing like the overcooked supermarket chicken you may be tempted to compare it to. Try it. You'll see.
For dessert, Floating Island ($7) features poached meringue floating in cream anglaise, and it really shouldn't be missed. Similarly, the waffle ($7) pairs a favorite breakfast item with a choice of ice cream and a choice of chocolate or raspberry sauce. Simple is sometimes best.
It's a huge menu with lots to come back for, and I haven't even mentioned the well-priced wine list, which Lang-Willar put together with the help of master sommelier Virginia Philip. As you peruse the iPad, you can enter the dishes you're ordering to see what Philip recommends. I was delighted to find Boddingtons Pub Ale ($6) on draft. We didn't try any of mixologist Melvin Negron's liquid-nitrogen-infused cocktails, but we saw plenty of them floating by.
There's something old-fashioned about the hustle and bustle of Stéphane's on a busy Saturday night. But Lang-Willar's mashup of classic French and American cuisines is entirely modern.
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Stéphane's American and French Cuisine
2006 NW Executive Center Circle, Boca Raton
Cuisine: French and American
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily, weekend brunch
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Somewhat noisy when full
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Highchairs, boosters, menu
Wheelchair accessible: Yes or no
Parking: Complimentary valet or self-park