The longish horizontal window was set at eye level, so nondescript that it looked like an empty aquarium. I didn’t even notice it until we’d finished our dinner. But after we paid, we walked over to peer through the glass. Mere feet away, Le Cep’s small, pristine kitchen was a tableau of workers in white. With utter concentration, they brandished knives and played with fire, and at the center of the scene was chef de cuisine Sandra Avila, who looked far too shy and calm to be in charge. And yet she most definitely was.
With her husband, David, 46-year-old Avila is the co-owner and co-creator of Le Cep, a contemporary French restaurant in Fort Worth’s burgeoning cultural district. It has already captured the attention of the local food community, but beyond being a new place to eat, it is a sign that a certain critical mass has been achieved in the city “where the West begins.” For decades Fort Worth was perfectly happy to be known as a bastion of barbecue, beefsteaks, and country club fare. But over the past ten years, as sushi, high-style Mexican food, Cajun-Creole specialties, gourmet health food, and more have made their way onto an evolving culinary scene, that stereotype has faded. Le Cep confirms what many have already observed: Fort Worth—it’s not just Cowtown anymore.
Eager to test that hypothesis, we found ourselves huddled around a linen-draped table in an attractive modern dining room strategically adorned with white orchids and contemporary art, debating whether to do the four- or eight-course tasting menu.
The arrival of a petite sandwich announced that the ritual had begun. “This,” declared the waiter, “is your amuse-bouche, deconstructed French onion soup.” And so it was. Two thin pieces of baguette held a jammy filling of sweet, long-simmered onions and a delicate slice of Gruyère, transforming a hoary classic into something sprightly and fun. A new feature was a pesto-like swoosh composed of Dijon, cilantro, and celery on the plate. I’m sure it would have been a delicious addition if I hadn’t already devoured the sandwich in two bites.
That combination of precision and playfulness proved to be the touchstone of all eight courses. It also signaled something that is rare these days: a restaurant where the chef actually cooks. But if you talk for even a minute with Sandra when she makes her rounds of the dining room, you know the native of Mexico City was born with a whisk in her hand. While David was stationed in the Philippines, working for an international corporation, Sandra decided to attend the Ducasse Institute, a demanding culinary program devised by rock star Monégasque chef Alain Ducasse. She did so well she was invited to intern for six months at 58 Tour Eiffel, a contemporary restaurant in the Eiffel Tower for which Ducasse was creative consultant and part owner.
“At the restaurant,” she said, “my day started at two-thirty in the afternoon and finished at twelve-thirty or one a.m., but I was so, so happy. It’s not hard when you love what you’re doing.” Given that infatuation, it was only a matter of time before she had to have a place of her own. David’s transfer from Manila to Fort Worth in 2013 gave them the courage to take the leap. Now, a little over a year later, Sandra finds herself working far more hours a day than she ever did at 58 Tour Eiffel, and David has quit his day job to handle the wine list and run the front of the house.
Their very European approach offers eight courses broken into three light dishes, three serious proteins, and two desserts. (The menu will change once a month, which makes sense for the kitchen but could frustrate repeat customers who want something different.) On our visit, I was seduced by the first course, a beautifully composed still life of gossamer slices of zucchini, tart matchsticks of Granny Smith apple, and rakish burgundy-hued beets perched atop a puddle of pistachio-Parmesan cream. Said Sandra, “I had a salad like this in a hotel in Europe one time; it stuck in my mind and I said, ‘One day I’m going to do something like it in my own restaurant.’ ”
My next favorite was the “Œuf,” a gorgeous poached egg carefully placed atop a bed of port-infused chopped porcini and sprinkled with bacon crumbles. If you wished, you could make this into a sandwich too, using the long slices of toasty brioche that adorn it like a pair of bunny ears. The only starter that failed to grab me was the well-crafted but overly subtle duck consommé, which gained little from the mix of quinoa and minced maiitake mushrooms that lurked in its depths.
But if the starters were a touch uneven, all of the protein courses—seafood, fowl, and meat—positively sparkled. The first—a single scallop presented like a precious jewel on a large white plate—sat in a velvety pool of possibly the thickest, richest beurre blanc I’ve ever seen. The sear on the shellfish was a deep russet, a color echoed in the garnish of a single lingonberry and three itty-bitty purple sprouts. The second, lovely pink breast of duck, had the satisfying heft of a meat course, set off by a reduced jus shot through with thyme. If I had any quibble, it would be that the duck and the next course, equally robust slices of venison, were a little too similar in flavor and texture. Granted, deer is heartier than duck, but both had been cooked sous vide and seared, which was a little too matchy-matchy for me. Still, though, I would have regretted missing the venison, which came on a sybaritic puree of celery root.
If you opt for the four-course menu, you get to have only one sweet: go with the chocolate. The strawberry-rhubarb parfait is nice, but the stunner is the Louis XV, an exact replica of the regal chocolate dessert served at Monaco’s renowned restaurant Le Louis XV–Alain Ducasse. Appropriately crowned with a snippet of edible gold leaf, the XV is known for being the devil to make. But that needn’t concern you as your fork pierces the dark chocolate glaze and mousse and glides through strata of hazelnut paste and meringue. As you lift the bite to your lips, give thanks to Alain Ducasse for creating it and to his overachieving student, Sandra Avila, for bringing it to Fort Worth, Texas, a city that finds itself at the edge of a new frontier.
3324 W. 7th, Fort Worth
D Tue–Sun. $$$$
Opened October 30, 2014