You lean back on the cane seat that covers your white, bentwood chair and survey the room. The first things you notice are the ancient iron doors that ushered you in and the hulking eighteenth-century stone fireplace. The cabinetry along one wall bears an uncanny resemblance to worn oak window frames, and old terracotta tiles adorn the floor. As you peer through tall windows flanked by linen drapes, you glimpse a terrace overlooking a harbor.
Everything about the scene reminds you of the light, airy vistas of southern France. Only, you're not visiting some quaint home in Provence, but rather dining in a delightful new restaurant in Greenwich, Connecticut, called L'Escale.
Opened this past January adjacent to the new luxury Delamar hotel, the casual but elegant L'Escale liberally sprinkles its décor and cuisine with Provençal touches and other Mediterranean influences. The dining room chairs, fireplace, cabinets, floor and iron doors were made in France, then carefully transported to the States and lovingly installed in the restaurant under the watchful eyes of interior designer Amelie Vigneron. The menu features such traditional Provençal entrées as soup au pistou and bouillabaisse, as well as seafood and produce from the Connecticut coastal region that reflect the light, herbal touches of Provençal cooking. The cumulative effect is to make you feel as though you're dining by the French seaside, not along an American waterway a mere 25 miles from New York City.
"It was the location that really attracted us," said director of operations Michael Capadona, explaining that L'Escale means "port of call" in French. "It's a place where people can come from all quarters and have something to eat. The whole notion is captured by the terrace. Boats can pull in [along a 600-foot dock] or cars can pull up, off of Route 95." Patrons can also arrive by train; the Metro North station in Greenwich is just two blocks away.
It's the terrace where cigar smokers are most welcomed at L'Escale. Order your lunch or dinner, then sit back and light up right at the table. Or wait until after dessert. Either way, you won't be relegated to the six-sided zinc bar area, unless it's by your own choosing. (Inside, smoking is not permitted, except in the lounge in the late evening after the dinner service.) The terrace, which seats 120, is kept cool by a "tonnel" of wrought-iron frames covered by bamboo thatching that provides shade from the heat while permitting sunlight to stream through.
Outside or in, the food at L'Escale won't disappoint. Executive chef Frederic Kieffer and chef de cuisine Stephane Canales have concocted a delicious array of menu choices. Start with the pistou soup or try the beef carpaccio "tomaté," the pan-seared foie gras or one of the shellfish selections. A warm vegetable medley with marinated goat cheese or a salmon or baby squid "a la plancha" (a Spanish method of pan frying) makes a delectable transition to the main course.
If the bouillabaisse, which is prepared with John Dory filet, jumbo prawns and monkfish in a rouille sauce and served with garlic croutons ($32) isn't your cup of tea, you can savor such entrées as oven-baked sea bass with chanterelle and artichoke fricassee ($28), tarragon-crusted rack of lamb with Provençal tomatoes and ratatouille ($30) or duckling breast with dates,and apples in a fig juice and polenta Galette ($25). Wash it all down with one of L'Escale's wines from the south of France, which constitute, not surprisingly, a sizable portion of the cellar. Raspberries with ice cream and minted syrup or a black and white chocolate soufflé in pistachio sauce provides an ideal ending.
For Capadona, a former prosecutor who worked his way through school with a series of restaurant jobs, L'Escale represents another joint venture with restaurateurs Rick Wahlstedt and Jean Denoyer. The three partners first hooked up nine years ago when Wahlstedt, Denoyer and two others founded Le Colonial, a French-Vietnamese restaurant in Manhattan, and hired Capadona to serve as general manager.
The goal for L'Escale, Capadona says, was to create "a homey feel" for the establishment, one that combined old and new elements. The patina walls convey a washed-out, faded appearance, while iron light boxes give the restaurant a more contemporary look.
You may get so comfortable at L'Escale that you don't want to leave. You'll have to, of course, but one option is to stay at the new hotel a few paces away. The Delamar, which opened just a few weeks before L'Escale, evokes the feel of a 1920s Mediterranean palace and is the only hotel in Connecticut listed among the Small Luxury Hotels of the World. It offers 74 luxurious rooms and nine suites, including a presidential suite with a balcony big enough for 25 people (you can light up on any of the guest room balconies). Best of all, after you rouse yourself in the morning from the Italian linens and down pillows and comforter, it's only a short hop back to L'Escale for breakfast.
500 Steamboat Road.
Tel: (203) 661-4600
Hours: breakfast 7 to 10 a.m.; lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (11 to 3 for Sunday brunch); dinner: 5 to 10 p.m. (till 11 on Friday and Saturday). Open seven days a week.