Scallop Ceviche at Le Petit Cafe

Gold, Plated

French bistro Le Petit Café is one of the most lauded restaurants in the country. Zagat rates its food the best in Connecticut, and the New York Times has bestowed its highest rating—“extraordinary.” And yet it sits, quiet and unassuming, behind lace-curtained windows on the Branford town green, 80 miles from Manhattan and a few exits from New Haven, the cultural and epicurean capital of the state.

Lofty reviews aside, dining here is a surprisingly relaxed experience. The dress code is “casual and neat” with no jacket required. The space itself is comfortable and intimate. Dappled sunlight pours through the front atrium in the early evening and amber candlelight turns the main dining area into the coziest of caves come sundown.

Dining at LPC is by reservation only; on Saturdays and holidays, set seatings are at 5:30 and 8:30. Open Wednesday through Sunday for a 4-course prix fixe dinner, portions are very generous (you can ask for a doggie bag) and each guest costs $55.50. Wines for pairing and mixed drinks are available at an additional cost with no BYO. While some might scoff at the price tag, for the consistent quality of the cuisine and overall dining experience, LPC is a gastronomical bargain. You could spend as much at many local fine dining establishments and end up far less satisfied or well-attended. (Those with allergies or special dietary restrictions should call ahead to see if they can be accommodated.)

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Guests are greeted at the door by Winnie Ip, co-owner and wife of Chef Roy Ip. He describes her as “the boss,” without whom “nothing would move.” Owners since 1997, the couple’s personal touch is apparent everywhere. Chef Roy himself calls back to confirm each reservation and makes a point of visiting with each and every table.

Understandably, there are many regular customers and LPC is a favorite location for commemorating important moments. During my visit, a young couple who’d gotten engaged at LPC celebrated their anniversary as Ip looked on, proudly telling me that he’s “been with them since the beginning.”

The decor is homey and eclectic, mixing Gallic images and country kitchen tchotchkes with local and personal touches. A stack of books by Connecticut authors, including cookbooks featuring local chefs, sits beside the front door. At the back of the main dining room, a large framed mirror covers the entire wall, reflecting the warm candle light. Hung atop the mirror is a blackboard with a scrawled note from Winnie’s and Roy’s son, Kevan. Written when he was just five years old, it’s welcomed guests for almost 20 years. (A customer with a historic mindset sprayed the note with fixer some time ago.)

Both Winnie and Chef Roy are on duty every night it’s open. As a result, the food is consistent in quality and the service is exacting—attentive and informed without being intrusive; warm and familiar without being too casual. The timing of food and drink delivery is impeccable. Each plate or bottle seems to arrive at the perfect moment, allowing for just enough time to savor each course or glass while maintaining the momentum (and the warm glow) of the meal.

While some establishments revel in the unexpected and shocking nature of ingredients or plating, LPC keeps it real: real ingredients, real service, real fine dining, magically free of pretension. Chef Roy Ip’s cuisine is efficiently delicious; each ingredient or garnish is an essential aspect of the overall experience. Texture and taste are equally emphasized, creating nuanced, multifaceted mouthfuls. Plates are beautifully simple and simply beautiful.

Immediately upon being seated, fresh baked bread arrives steaming hot and accompanied by ramekins of truffle butter, marinated beets and olives. First course options include a soup of the day as well as French classics like duck confit, pate or escargot. Less expected, but of particular note, was the delicate whole-scallop ceviche bathed in an orange, pineapple, jalapeño and cilantro vinaigrette and topped with grapefruit. Equally delicious were the sesame soba noodles served chilled and knotted beneath a crown of perfectly cooked jumbo shrimp, over a bed of thinly sliced cucumber. The second course was a precisely portioned salad, dressed delicately with a coin of creamy goat cheese.

For the entree course, there is no chicken option—a conscious choice by Ip, who believes that his dining experience should feature dishes you likely wouldn’t make at home. But there are several bistro-inspired staples, like the perfectly cooked Steak au Poivre with frites that I tried, or a rack of lamb—the only dish you’re encouraged to eat with your fingers. There are also less expected dishes like the baked miso-glazed Chilean sea bass or, doused in Chef Roy’s Campari tomato sauce, the roasted organic salmon with trumpet royale mushrooms.

Sweet teeth will be satisfied by an array of dessert options, including a flourless chocolate cake, a creamy creme brulee (flavors change weekly) and nightly specials like the decadent bread pudding I enjoyed. The coffee was strong and flavorful and the selection of after-dinner aperitifs was vast.

Despite all the variety, the Ips pride themselves on giving every diner the same kind and caliber of experience. No one is rushing off to a movie afterward or taking advantage of a Groupon. Instead, the people sitting to the left or right of you as you dine are in the midst of the same all-immersive culinary event—although perhaps enjoying a different moment within that experience. You may find yourself looking over to another table, relishing the memory of a dish you’ve just enjoyed, or peeking at the confectionary treat and aperitif two tables over, heightening the anticipation and, ultimately, the savoring.

Le Petit Café
225 Montowese St, Branford (map)
Open Wed-Sun for dinner. Sat offers 5:30 and 8:30 seatings. Reservation-only.
(203) 483-9791

Written and photographed by Amy Larkin.

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