Restaurant News & Reviews

Cafe Monte ups ante for French fare

I had just finished wolfing down the last Nutella crepe from Cafe Monte – the one I thought I couldn't finish and had a server box up, only to eat it with my fingers in the car half a mile down the road. That was when it hit me: It really did evoke a little piece of Paris, where I wolfed them exactly the same way, at almost every opportunity.

Not the chicest of recollections, perhaps, but an honest one. Nutella crepes, the hazelnutty-chocolate spread oozing from the pores of tender folded discs, are an underappreciated French accomplishment.

I suspect Cafe Monte is an underappreciated Charlotte accomplishment.

I've now had those crepes, quiche Lorraine, steak frites (a thick little steak done beautifully, with thin and crisp fries) and herbed rotisserie chicken that were all excellent.

So why, on my last visits (breakfast, lunch, dinner), has the place held almost exclusively ladies who lunch, nibbling entrée salads and pizzas?

The place hardly exudes girliness. The color scheme is rich gold with black and white and dark woods, from the walls to the woven chairs to Art Nouveau artwork and details, with huge mirrors and historical photos. An enormous case stretches along the right wall displaying all manner of baked goods, few so frilly they couldn't appeal to both genders.

And while salads and pizzas are fine – well, salads are lovely and generous; I found a chicken ratatouille pizza dreadful, dryish shreds of meat among bitter eggplant – there are so many other choices!

If a few offerings miss the mark – café au lait was terrific one day, inescapably burnt-tasting the next, while lemon overwhelmed the popular shrimp and artichoke crepe – more hit: French onion soup had the delicacy of the real deal, a croque monsieur (sort of a French open-face ham-and-cheese) had fine flavor, and creamy mussels were sop-worthy.

Créme brulee was the thin sort, with nearly as much of the brittle sugar crust as the silky custard beneath. I'd like to see more sophisticated and varied desserts – executive chef Justin Mendenhall is currently overseeing the baking, too – but I'll settle for fixing the coffee inconsistency until a pastry chef comes along.

Servers in black pants and black shirts pinstriped in white maneuver smoothly through the sizable space. They're amiable, if unevenly educated: One insisted on mispronouncing dishes, to a comical degree, while another not only suggested a better wine for a second course but brought a taste of it to the diner. Well done – and just the sort of familiar yet sophisticated gesture you want here.

Managing partner Monte Smith is often on hand, and has the amenable presence of a bistro owner, as those who knew him as manager at the Palm will attest. He's working on improving service and widening charcuterie, cheese and chalkboard-special selections, a welcome strategy all the way around.

“We're blessed” by the strong “ladies” demographic, Smith says, and surprised, too. Catering to women “was not our intent, but (they) have helped us be successful.” Good. Now it's time for the guys to enjoy in equal measure.