According to The French Deli’s owner, Benoit Legris, around ninety percent of French restaurants in the United States serve high end, extremely expensive, haute cuisine. It’s delicious of course – full of rich sauces and decadent flavors – but French women don’t stay thin downing baked Brie and spoonfuls of hollandaise sauce. In a certain way, it’s even inauthentic.
Legris, a Normandy native with a thick French accent despite 19 years living in Naples, says the typical French diet is far simpler than you might expect. Full of basic sandwiches, salads and omelets, it is a healthy, uncomplicated menu; exactly the kind of menu you’ll find at The French Deli on Tamiami Trail in Naples.
Walking into The French Deli on a drizzly Wednesday afternoon, I am greeted by a quaint one-room café dressed in soft light and European accents. A dozen or so small tables are arranged in rows in front of a small counter with built in dessert cases. The cases’ glass windows offer a mouth-watering view of French pastries like tarte tatin, crème brulée, and chocolate mousse.
A friend and I take a seat at a comfy corner table and give the menu a quick once over. Amid offerings like homemade quiches, stuffed croissants, soups and sandwiches we pick out two lunches: a chicken salad made with roasted chicken, tomatoes and Swiss cheese ($8.95) and a roast beef sandwich served on a French baguette alongside a small salad ($7.95). We decide on a bowl of the “New England style clam chowder” ($4.95) to start and a Coke and a coffee. Then we sit back and relax in the restaurant’s calm interior.
Within a few moments our server arrives with the soup and a small wicker basket of sliced French bread. The chowder, presented in a deep, rustic-looking brown ceramic bowl is indeed the white, cream based version I am partial to (not that red imitation stuff from New York). Our first heaping swallows bring a strong undercurrent of salty clam and a warmth that is comforting even during the summer. The soup is slightly runny however, not quite as thick and hearty as my favorite Boston “chowdahs,” and the clams have been oddly diced into small pieces, depriving us of the soft texture and rush of seafood flavor that comes with a satisfying bite of meaty clam.
A short while later our lunches are delivered. My salad is an artfully arranged plate of goodies. Spinach leaves have been tossed with corn and chunks of moist, teriyaki marinated chicken then topped with a generous pile of shredded Swiss cheese. Around the edge of the plate long strips of chicken alternate with tomato wheels in a colorful pinwheel pattern. And this salad isn’t just pretty. The chicken (served cold) is incredibly moist and pleasantly sweet. The spinach is dressed in a simple balsamic vinegar and olive oil that compliments the chicken’s flavor and the delicate smoky saltiness of the cheese. It is, in sum, a wonderful lunch, and it leaves me full but not weighted down.
My friend, meanwhile, is crunching through the first bites of his roast beef sandwich. It is served on a classic French baguette, and the bread has a crisp crust spiked with golden peaks that give way to a soft doughy interior with every bite. The combination of fresh bread, high quality roast beef, and basic garnishes produce a perfectly balanced sandwich that, like much of French cooking, focuses on letting the flavors and textures of a few excellent ingredients combine for a delicious and minimal effect.
When our lunches have all but disappeared we turn to our attention to The French Deli’s desserts. Although I wouldn’t normally indulge in a midday sweet, the thought of hot homemade crepes is more than I can resist, and we order up a pair ($5.95 for two) one with Nutella, a luxurious chocolate and hazelnut spread, and one with strawberry jam. When our server presents the beautifully decorated plate, our crepes turn out to be – as crepes often are – an excellent choice. Folded into two wide triangles, the crepes are spongy, hot and paper thin, and their fillings melting into our mouth with every nibble. A spoon of whipped cream offers a momentary break from the sweetness, before we dive back into the scrumptious dessert.
We leave the café, full and fully satisfied, with a bill that just barely tops the $30 mark – the beverages are surprisingly expensive and have nudged us over our $15 per person budget. Our meal, however, has been worth every penny. The friendly service and simple French fare are reason enough to stop for breakfast or lunch at The French Deli. Come October 1st they’ll be reason enough to draw a dinner crowd as well, when Legris expands his café’s hours to include dinner as well.