Cafe Dupont's cuisine wows and whets the appetite for more.
By Jan Walsh
Photography by Beau Gustafson
Cafe Dupont draws diners from both near and far. When a writer for Food & Wine magazine called me from New York to discuss Birmingham as a culinary city, she asked for recommendations of restaurants to review. Cafe Dupont was one of my suggestions. Upon her arrival to town she popped in for lunch, and called me afterwards with her critique. "I was wowed by Cafe Dupont!" she exclaimed, before going on to describe in detail each delicious dish. I was not surprised, as I have been "wowed" again and again since the restaurant opened in 2003. And Cafe Dupont led her "Food and Wine Across America" article on Birmingham, which was published in the October 2007.
After five years at his 20th Street location, owner and executive chef Chris Dupont remains true to his style and his philosophy that a chef should be in the kitchen. "My style is to take common techniques and recipes and elevate them to the modern era," Dupont describes. His menu changes nightly as Dupont creates his culinary masterpieces with only the freshest and finest quality food products.
But more than the menu is changing at Cafe Dupont. "We are changing the face of the restaurant. We are putting on a whole new front that will extend out onto the 20th Street sidewalk for outdoor dining and change the entrance to the bar," he explains. The restaurant, which now seats 55 will add 20-25 more seats plus an additional 15 at the bar. The additional 1,500 square feet of space will include a 20 foot, hand built bar, which will utilize the back of an antique bar. This space will have an old world feel exposing the building's original ceiling and floors. Additional bar style-but Dupont style-appetizers, cocktails and a scaled down dinner menu will be added for those who want to have a couple of drinks and eat at the bar. The expansion is expected to be completed by early Fall 2008.
By popular demand Cafe Dupont will begin serving lunch again, upon the completion of the expansion. "We stopped serving lunch over six months ago, and we still have five to ten lunch reservation calls a day from customers. "We did not realize how much our customers depended on having a fine dining lunch downtown. So we will resume and serve the same style as before."
Cafe Dupont's ambience is pristine. Silverware gleams, glasses shine, white napkins and tablecloths are spotless. This summer evening I watch the restaurants vanilla colored walls turn to amber after sunset, gleaming from the soft light of the black iron sconce that flank the walls.
We order a chef's tasting menu in order to get a broad taste of the menu-five appetizers, four entrees and two desserts. After a slice of Dupont's hot buttered bread, we sample an Artisan Cheese Plate with cool slices of Gruyere, San Gil d'Albio, Alabama Goat Cheese, Caciotta Al Tartufo, and Drunken Goat. Among the cheeses are raspberry onions, olives, and sun dried tomatoes. The dish is served with a grilled garlic crostini that has the perfect crunch on the edges with a center that is both firm and moist. Next arrives my tried and true favorite, which Dupont has evolved in presentation-Fried Oysters and Okra. The golden oysters and vegetables rest in a Cayenne Butter Sauce with horseradish creme fraiche and soy glaze. With or without the sauce, each crisp bite of this dish is perfection. Next paper-thin slices of Kobe Beef Carpaccio with flavors of shaved Parmesan, organic Arugula, capers and shallot oil melt in the mouth. Newly discovered favorites are the next two appetizers. Marinated Watermelon with red onions and Alabama's own Belle Chevre goat cheese tastes like summer. The juicy, refreshing watermelon cuts the cream of the cheese, and the onion adds a sweet tart bite. "This is an old school dish. My grandparents always put salt and pepper on their watermelon. It adds texture, so this dish is a twist on the farmers' way of putting salt and pepper on fruit," Dupont describes. After deseeding the watermelon Dupont marinates it in raspberry vinegar, onions, salt and pepper. As the watermelon leaches out its juices into the marinade, the melon is creating more marinade for other watermelons. The red onions are pulled out and used in the presentation of this and other dishes. And a delicacy of Fried Organic Squash Blossoms -from Michael Dean-with Ratatouille and roasted pepper buerre blanc are stuffed with scrumptious sautéed rabbit.
The first tasting entrée is Grilled Large Sea Scallop-the largest scallop I have ever seen-presented with fresh baby lima beans bursting with flavor, organic micro greens and tomato caper relish. "These scallops are from Maine and are the best scallops I have had in three months. I stopped serving them for awhile because due to mating season, they would get milky and bitter," Dupont says. The second entrée tasting is a Braised Alabama Rabbit and Grilled Rabbit Tenderloin. Aromas of the braising jus rise from the plate whetting the appetite for a bite of the rabbit served with tempura fried apple-a small apple pie. This dish is a shining example of Dupont's mastery of selecting and combining components. A duet of Grilled Lamb Chop and Georgia Quail is served with aromatic olive oil crushed potatoes-made from an old recipe using baby red potatoes, quartered and baked in olive oil and herbs, then mashed. "These are a popular dish and go well with everything," Dupont says. A Grilled Sirloin Flat Iron Steak with Yorkshire Pudding, inside a flaky crust, is topped with a delightful onion ring and served with organic arugula and shaved parmesan. I never miss the snapper at Dupont's. Tonight's hot, moist and flaky Grilled Gulf Red Snapper with sauce buerre rouge is paired with a ramekin of hot, moist Parmesan spoon bread. "The spoon bread is a baked polenta. But rather than baking it in a large, iron skillet we make individual soufflés because they hold in the flavors better than spooning it out of one big pan all night." Another can't miss fish is Destin Flounder with warm lady pea ragout, topped with shaved fennel and served with an orange salad.
After tasting five appetizers and six entrees I almost wave my white napkin to dessert, until I see dark chocolate terrine on the dessert menu. To this deep, nutty, dark and rich cake I do surrender to every bite as well as his classic crème brulee.
Cafe Dupont's service is flawless. His masterful cuisine achieves a level of perfection that only a perfectionist, such as Dupont can consistently achieve. And the expansion and renewed lunch service are greatly anticipated to those who could not expect more-but want more-of Café Dupont.