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Look at Her

Café C's wood-fired oven spits out flams. They're like pizzas, only better.

"Miss America ate here." This is a swell publicity claim for any restaurant, especially one planted among the sticks in a tiny town named for an itty-bitty tree with a fungus problem. Miss America combines all the things that make for good promo sizzle: beauty, talent and sex--or the lack of it. Newly crowned Miss America 2003, Erika Harold, recently got into hot water for her campaign promoting sexual abstinence among teen girls, an interesting stance for a beauty ornament who preens in a swimsuit and pumps on national television.

Pageant officials, for inexplicable reasons, pressured her to put a stopper in her cold-water fire hose aimed at raging adolescent hormones, so she fought back. "I will not be bullied," Harold reportedly uttered during a National Press Club appearance. Tough words for a woman armed with a bouquet and an ambition to hold elected office; so tough that pageant officials backed down.

Spats like this make Miss America a priceless dining patron in terms of publicity purposes, no matter what your position on chastity belts. Only Harold didn't stop by Café C in Little Elm for dinner. Phyllis George did. George is the Denton High graduate and one-time co-host of CBS Sports' NFL Today who won the Miss America crown in 1971, and Café C founder and chef Francois Fotre cooked for George once before. In 1979, when he was the executive chef at Tavern on the Green in New York's Central Park, Fotre was in charge of George's wedding reception after she formally bonded with former Kentucky Governor John Y. Brown. George stopped by Café C to see Fotre while here visiting family and promoting her new book: Never Say Never: 10 Lessons to Turn 'You Can't' Into 'Yes I Can,' a book that has some interesting possibilities for Harold's abstinence campaign.

Fotre, who operates Café C with wife Catherine (the restaurant's namesake), moved to Texas some years ago and worked as a concept chef for Brinker International before assuming the chef post at the Stonebriar Country Club in Frisco. In 1997 he opened La Mirabelle, a much-lauded upscale French restaurant in North Dallas serving things like Châteaubriand, vichyssoise and flaming desserts.

But it wasn't long before Fotre grew weary of this endeavor, and he sold it late last year to pursue something simpler in a quieter setting. "It was time to do something where you can feed more people than 1 percent of the richest people in the world," he says. "I was basically tired of having to pay astronomical rent in North Dallas to shyster landlords."

Now he stages his culinary flourishes in a restaurant he built on a piece of land he purchased some seven years ago. It's a large restaurant, much bigger than La Mirabelle, with cafeteria airs and an open kitchen. Walls are washed in burnt red and celery green, and velvet swags embellish the windows.

Café C's rear view overlooks a Lake Lewisville cove, a shallow inlet with dead tree stumps and stick stubble cragging the surface. The long bar, with expansive windows, has a compelling view of this puddle; or it would if the windows dropped low enough to let this aqueous view seep through. To remedy the view obstruction, Fotre says he plans to install a deck sometime after the first of the year to exploit the serene environs. This restaurant is on solid ground.

And Fotre has his bedrock menu. Smoked salmon with the "classic garniture" of shallots, capers and crème fraîche, is supple and tender without any strings or meat knots. It's drenched with subtle smoke flavors that skirt a trouncing of the natural richness of the fish.

His crème brûlée is unbeatable in its Spartan accuracy. No frills. No froufrou plays. Just solid tactical restraint, with a warm crisp sugar crust capping a smooth, rich, cool custard. The efficiency of it would be trance-inducing except for the sharp burnt taste that sparks the palate with paper-cut assertiveness without blurring it in bitterness.

But what do you get when you treat raw meat with this rigor? One thing you don't get is modesty. The menu description for the steak tartare states the stuff is "simply the best." Little Elm, a mere dimple in the North Texas stretch of suburbia, is not a destination by any stretch, but a 48-minute drive seems a reasonable price for this mound of raw meat. It's not so much the lucidly rich meat, pestered as it was with a spicy dressing of egg yolk, mustard, cayenne, chopped capers, paprika, red wine vinegar and a little lemon, that draws with compelling magnetism. (Fotre says his secret ingredient is, of all things, salt, a component often scotched in the process of buzzing the meat with other flavors). It was the substitution of toast points with house-made pommes frites. Why spread raw meat on toast when it's much easier and tastier to dip with the tip of a fry?

Plus fries are the fodder of middlebrow masses, the very souls Fotre claims a yearning to connect with after his divorce from shysters. Pizza is, too, and Café C has a kitchen where a kindled wood pizza oven spits out pies mostly without meat, though one is topped with anchovies and another with an egg over easy. It also flings flams, confoundedly tasty little pizzas from Alsace Lorraine (Fotre's home ground) that sub mozzarella and tomato sauce with crème fraîche, onions and little strips of meat called bacon lardons. Lardons are strips of fatty meat cut from pork bellies. Traditionally, lardons are mostly fat, hence the larded nature of the moniker. But Fotre doesn't search out fatty bellies. Instead, he plumbs lean paunches out of Chicago, Czech-style. "They do just like we do in France," he says. "They use pigs that are not that fatty. This is more lean." It's also intense, on account of oak smoke. These tiny belly strips imbue this minimalist pizza on a thin crackery crust with an addictively rich, earthy flavor. Tarte foestiére, a medley of crème fraîche, garlic, onion, parsley and lardons, shows just how ineffectual tomato sauce, cheese glue and pepperoni diskettes can be in a traditional pizza. Flams rock.

Yet not everything in this cafe is a dead ringer for sublimity. Roasted rack of lamb, a crown of intertwined bones with micro medallions of meat posted on the ends, is a little dry, though the sweet flavors aren't at all thwarted. Half duck à l'orange is also on the dry side. Yet it, too, conquered aridity with striking flavors teased from a "secret spice" blend, one Fotre also uses to rouse his roast free-range chicken. The crisp duck skin is extraordinarily flavor intensive, while the breast flesh is void of the prodigious flab that can sometimes transform duck entrées into a lipid slurp.

In addition to these simple examples of bashful (as opposed to showy) gastronomy, Café C has a small assortment of specials. Seared tuna (sushi grade) was pure satin, with only a dab of wasabi and dish of ponzu to dress it. Haddock in caper sauce, a fresh fish selection, suffered from minor sponginess but was sopped with fresh clean flavors, though a side of saffron rice was dry and stiff.

In addition to the ubiquitous crème brûlée (though not ubiquitous in Fotre form), desserts include a fudgy rich flourless chocolate cake and lots of house-made ice cream riddled with bracing freshness.

Fotre has ambitions for his understated little cafeteria. He fancies himself a pioneer of sorts, staking a barren prairie sod claim and imbuing it with classic cuisine at middlebrow prices. To that end, he says he plans to open as many as three more Café C's around the Dallas area, maybe in places like Frisco, which is now more of a dining room community than a bedroom community. And that probably suits the current Miss America just fine.


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