Gourmet Detective

Le Petit Café
An East Coast Treasure

by Pamela Price
photos by Kevan Ip

For our 50th issue, the Gourmet Detective traveled over 3,000 miles to Branford, Connecticut to dine at one of the most talked about French restaurants in the North East. Every year during the holiday season I bundle up and visit picturesque Connecticut, located less than two hours from New York City. With streets lined with quaint coffee shops and ice cream parlors, one of the most charming stops in the town of Branford is Chef Roy Ip’s Le Petit Café.
In an economy when many restaurants are here today and gone tomorrow, Chef Roy’s bistro has withstood the test of time for almost 20 years since he first opened his doors in 1997. Born and raised in Hong Kong, two questions come to mind: Why specialize in French cuisine and why settle in small town U.S.A?
Chef Roy explained that he began cooking when he was very young.
“I came from a big family in Hong Kong and I’m the fifth child of my six siblings. Everyone worked and helped. Usually the sixth child is the one being pampered, so who does all of the work? (laughter) The fifth child! I experienced different kinds of cooking helping my mom, chopping and doing the dishes.”
Two decades ago, Chef Roy made the big move to follow his passion for cooking.
“French cooking always intrigued me and was fascinating. The presentation, the principle and the attitude is so meticulous. When I came to America in 1994-95, I first lived in Manhattan. I saw the French Culinary Institute in New York and I wanted to give it a try to see if this was what I was dreaming of. Twenty years later…”
It turns out that his dreams came true. He wanted to open a bistro because he finds the art of bistro cooking “very down-to-earth.” He describes it as home-cooking, but a level up in terms of the cooking technique and sophistication.
Chef Roy opens Le Petit Café for dinner Wednesday through Sunday and on Saturday evenings for two fixed seatings at 5:30 PM and 8:30 PM. Every morning he prepares all of the organic and natural ingredients to create the evening’s menu. All sauces, baked goods and pastries are made from scratch in the kitchen. To keep the intrigue, Chef Roy changes the Menu du Jour on a weekly and seasonal basis.
In the heart of town, you can’t miss the forest green bistro-front. Inside, it’s quite cozy with black checkered tiles and wooden chairs and tables covered in traditional white cloth. Almost every inch of wall space is adorned with eclectic framed French art and that famous horizontal bistro mirror. The classic French music, from Edith Piaf to Charles Trenet transports you to another world.
Chef Roy is very much a part of the atmosphere, always greeting his guests and sometimes even serving the dishes himself. The local residents know him by name and vice-versa.
On the evening I dined, it was difficult to choose as everything looked so enticing, from the country style pork pâté layered with armagnac infused cherries and house-cured foie gras, to the warm duck leg confit with Roy’s special fresh fruit jam. With a four course prix fixe menu, I decided to start with one of my preferred French appetizers, the sautéed French escargot. But instead of the traditional escargot in a shell on a tin plate, it is (Burgundy) served with blue cheese (premium French “St. Agur”) and cognac sauce on a herb-accented puff pastry.
Chef Roy has a way of infusing diverse ingredients to create a unique experience for the diner’s palate. Although the menu may seem to cater to those who love meat, there are other options, including the soup du jour (French Onion during my visit) or the baked miso glazed Chilean sea bass for an entrée.
I could not resist the Angus New York steak au poivre (Texas premium aged angus) served “Le Petit Café style” with watercress salad and brandy-black peppercorn sauce. Naturally, one cannot dine the French way without frites (fries) to go with your steak au poivre. Chef Roy’s sauce is hearty and has a pinch of sweetness, making every bite delectable.
Speaking of sweet, when it comes to beverages, Le Petit Café offers a full wine menu and Chef Roy even crafts and mixes his very own cocktail recipes occasionally.
Rounding out the evening, I finished with the Crème Brûlée made with vanilla bean and topped with berries.
When I asked Chef Roy what his top choice dish is, he told me, “One of my favorite dishes to cook and eat is the classic French dish called the Vinegar Chicken. You use a vinegar sauce to slow cook the chicken with vegetables. It’s comfort food.”
It is certainly a comforting experience to dine at Le Petit Café. I now know why people travel from around the country and even the world for a reservation. Rated Connecticut’s Best Restaurant for Food by Zagat, I have no doubt that this quaint bistro will continue to rise to the top of foodie’s ‘must eat at’ lists.
225 Montowese St.
Branford, CT — 06405
Tel: 203 483-9791
http://www.lepetitcafe.net