SEASIDE, Fla.— The hippest restaurant in the Florida Panhandle just might be Café Rendez-Vous in Seaside, the small community which serves as ground zero of the New Urbanist movement.
I happened upon Café Rendez-Vous through the girlfriend of a friend who told me to take my wife there to check out the Tahitian pearl and leather necklaces for sale. I didn’t put much stock into a restaurant recommendation that was more jewelry-store referral than food tip, but I found myself there while tagging along with a browsing spouse.
Café Rendez-Vous is very small, but stylish enough to fall into the “charming” category. It hosts a dozen leather bar stools, a few sofas, and al fresco dining for approximately 40.
The menu is as refreshingly limited as the space. In a region filled with white-tablecloth stalwarts, fried seafood houses, fast food, and fine-dining wannabes, Café Rendez-Vous is a welcomed change from the Pensacola-to-Panama-City norm.
The sushi menu is only 15 items long. The usual suspects are present, and all are well executed. The standard menu offers three crepes— walnut and goat cheese, ham and asparagus, and berries and Nutella— a bruscheta, Caesar salad, chicken satay, cheese plate, and shrimp ceviche. That’s 23 total menu items. Simple. Beautiful. Tasteful.
In contrast to the food menu, the wine list is extensive and offers several premium wines by the glass. Ultimately, Café Rendez-Vous is more bar than café, but categorization probably doesn’t matter much to its owners, Wendy and Jean-Noel Mignot. The pair seems to have created a spontaneous business with inspiration taken from where they would rather hang out as opposed to what their target market might want or need. That is refreshing and it is one of the primary aspects that make the place work.
The couple met on the Caribbean island of St. Barthelemy. She was a jewelry designer, he had a restaurant background with parents in the jewelry business. They married, purchased a sailboat, and then went sailing for several years. Two children later, and after a shipwreck totaled the boat in Beaufort, NC, they opened Café Rendez-Vous in Seaside.
As it was during their sailing days, the jewelry business is still handled at trunk shows in New York and Los Angeles. However, tucked away in a small display case at the end of the bar is a beautifully designed collection of Tahitian and freshwater pearl necklaces and earrings threaded with a unique leather, the origin of which is kept secret.
Café Rendez-Vous is one of those rare places that are the exception to most every longstanding restaurant rule. The Mignot’s do it their way and it works. The barefoot island attitude permeates through every aspect of the business. The overall approach is laid back. Whenever a restaurant/bar can accomplish that mind-set naturally, the guests have no other option than to relax and unwind.
Nothing in Café Rendez-Vous is contrived. The space is organic and the employees, like the owners, are running on island time. The front-of-the-house staff of four (bartender, sushi chef, server, and jewelry salesperson/server) wears whatever clothing they felt comfortable in when they left the house that morning, the overall attitude is friendly and welcoming, the lighting is subtle, and the house music is supplied by the bartender-on-duty’s iPod. I love that.
In talking to the staff, one can tell that they love the owners and therefore, their jobs. It is impossible for a restaurateur to create loyalty, devotion, and desire among employees— those qualities must be earned. Café Rendez-Vous has accomplished this feat several times over.
In addition to sushi and crepes, Café Rendez-Vous might be the only restaurant in the area that serves ceviche. One would think that in a coastal area, especially one filled with seafood restaurants, one could find ceviche on several menus— not so.
The sushi station at Café Rendez-Vous is in the back of the café and is manned by a lone sushi chef. One could probably find better sushi in the area, though I don’t know where, but you’d have to look pretty hard to find sushi served in a more modish atmosphere.
I would suspect that there are days when the small, three-tiered, upright jewelry case is responsible for more sales than the restaurant/bar. Wendy Mignot’s customers range from the Hollywood elite to locals who wander in with no idea that such inimitable leather-meets-pearl jewelry would be available in a sidewalk café. The approach is low-key, and just another aspect that makes Café Rendez-Vous unique, and original.
Every once in a while I daydream about giving it all up and moving my family to the islands. If I ever did, the place of my dreams would look a lot like Café Rendez-Vous.
1 1/2 lb. Cream cheese, softened at room temperature
3/4 cup Sugar
2 Tbl. Finely grated lemon zest
2 Tbl. Fresh lemon juice
2 tsp. Vanilla extract
Combine all ingredients (except crepes) and blend until smooth. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Fill the crepes by placing the cream cheese mixture in a pastry bag and piping a 1” x 1” tube down the center of each crepe. Roll the crepes and place them on a lightly buttered baking sheet, non-stick is preferable. Cover the crepes with a sheet of wax paper and cover the entire wax-covered baking sheet with a sheet of aluminum foil. Bake for 6-7 minutes just until center is warm. While crepes are baking, make the sauce.
1/2 lb. Butter, unsalted
1/2 cup Sugar
2 Tbl Freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup Brandy
In a medium skillet, melt butter over medium high heat. Add sugar and cook until it begins to dissolve. Add lemon juice and whisk together ingredients. Add the Brandy and carefully ignite. When flame subsides, lower heat slightly and cook for 4-5 minutes, until thick and creamy. Place warm crepes on serving dishes and spoon the heated sauce over them. Garnish with fresh raspberries and mint. Yield: 6-8 servings