A taste of France in the Ventura Harbor
Le Petit Café
By Nicholas Franklin 07/25/2013
Le Petit Café
1591 Spinnaker Drive
Until I stopped to read Le Petit Cafe’s menu, I figured it was just a place for espresso and croissants, partly because checking them out on Yelp leads you to “Le Petit Café Bakery” and partly because the confusing layout of the Ventura Harbor Village makes you lose your eye for details. For a while, every time I passed by I failed to notice the writing on the awnings that says, “Seafood, cocktails, steaks … restaurant.”
It was a great surprise to find that not only is it a full-scale restaurant — it’s an authentic French restaurant. Though California-inspired dishes and pasta are also peppered throughout the menu, this is one of the few places in the county where you can find classic French offerings like escargots, frog legs, beef au poivre, and duck confit.
When you walk in, don’t let the initial dissonance between the ambience and the cuisine sway you toward another harbor restaurant. The area by the host station is too dark and tight to feel welcoming, and the dining room does feel a little sparse and quaint.
But that said, the patio here is great. A wide view of the water and the boats in the harbor makes you blissfully zone out. Roses and rosemary flourishing at the side make for a verdant feel. And gentle sounds from a tiered water fountain, where finch birds bathe and wait for croissant crumbs, round out the relaxing effect of the outdoor seating.
Starting with escargots felt like the best way to size up Chef Jean-Luc’s skills on our first visit. The meat was prepared traditionally — sautéed in butter with mushrooms, parsley and a perfect amount of garlic. The slight chew and earthy richness of the snails echoed that of the mushrooms, which made for a delicious sort of sauce from the mushroom juices being reduced into the butter. We used the fresh house-made baguette to mop up any trace of this.
Since the crab cake (“Chef’s own recipe”) appears a few places on the menu, ordering the sandwich sounded like a good lunch, but I regretted trying it as a sandwich. The blue crab meat had a crispy crust at first, but that softened from the aioli condiment. And though the croissants are amazing, their richness dominated over the crab like the prettier of two pretty sisters entering a room.
When our server lifted the cover off the Channel Islands seafood stew, she revealed a mound of shellfish towering inches above a bowl twice as wide as your face. With giant sea scallops, large clams, mussels, plus Alaskan sockeye salmon and local sea bass in the tasty broth, this dish has lots to offer.
The confit de canard does, too, with a crispy caramelized skin that’s taut around the succulent, slow-roasted dark meat. The mango curry chutney sauce served on the side was delicious with the savory duck skin, and playfully illustrated the fact that the approach here is very French but not strictly French.
Then you have steak frites (New York by day, rib-eye by night), representing old-school Escoffier-style French by sporting béarnaise sauce on the side (though I’d guess that Escoffier would call for more herbs).
The flavors and execution here are good, sometimes excellent. It’s mainly visual aspects that hold this restaurant back from feeling more top-rate. Most of the aforementioned dishes were plated without much grace — protein, starch, sauce in ramekin, citrus slice for garnish. Busing is done with tubs to save time. Patio chairs are mismatched. That all might sound petty because really none of it is a bother, but when a place is on the upscale side, those visual details should display more care to garner more cred.
All of that is especially odd because Chef Jean-Luc’s pastries are gorgeous. Even if you’re full, you have to ask to see the dessert tray, which that day included lemon cakes, éclairs, apricot tartes, napoleons, and several other choices. We ordered an espresso mousse that had a good grit from ground coffee beans and was served in an edible chocolate mug — completely worth teetering toward stuffed.
Service is mostly good, with servers providing great wine pairing recommendations and an attentiveness that runs against the fact that they’re sometimes strained from having no buser during lunch. With that, I should point out this review is based entirely on lunch; most dinner dishes are available for a few dollars less at lunch, allowing a little more flexibility in how many things to try. And breakfast is only on the weekend, which can be hard to make happen.
There’s a lot to like about Le Petit Café. It just needs some polish to feel fully realized — in ambience, presentation, and especially with the full bar, which you wouldn’t know was there unless you looked to the right on the way in because there’s no cocktail menu. But with all things considered, if you’re a Francophile foodie who has yet to eat here, be sure to come and enjoy Chef Jean-Luc’s delicious fare.