Bon Appétit: Eating French at Davaoeño Prices

Eating French conjures images of fine dining in a fancy setting with strict dress codes and snotty waiters mocking your difficulty in pronouncing the expensive items on the menu.  And for basically laid-back Davaoeños who avoid everything pretentious and anything that would require them to go through all the fuss of dressing up just to eat food they hardly understand and priced ridiculously high, French dining would be too intimidating and too exhausting an exercise.

But Bon Appétit, the French bistro owned and operated by the husband-and-wife team of Yves and Rosalie Monestier, made eating French food accessible and affordable for Davaoeños.  Bon Appétit just opened at Plaza del Carmen in Loyola Street, Davao City (it’s that street opposite F. Torres when you cross J.P. Laurel Avenue) last June 18, 2011.  A bistro is usually described as a “small restaurant serving moderately priced simple meals in a modest setting.”

But only the price and the space are moderate about Bon Appétit, everything else is simply divine.

Parisian chic yet cozy with original artworks

Parisian chic yet cozy with original artworks

The ambiance is Parisian chic yet cozy in burgundy color (like the wine from that region in France) with wicker chairs in natural finish that remind you of cafés in the Mediterranean.  Original artworks by Yves’ father hang on the walls and they make you feel like you are dining in a gallery by the River Seine.  And when you enter the restaurant, you are personally welcomed by a real honest-to-goodness Frenchman – Yves himself, who also doubles as Bon Appétit’s resident baker (he bakes their own baguette) and sommelier (someone who specializes in all aspects of wine service as well as wine and food matching).

Their user-friendly menu is both in French and in English with helpful descriptions so you can visualize what it is you are ordering. They have weekly and daily specials depending on what’s available and in season and they have regular mainstays that are mostly inspired by Monestier family recipes handed down through generations and perfected by Rosalie with her mother-in-law’s loving guidance.

Chef Rosalie Monestier is a proud Davaoeña who lived in France for many years

Chef Rosalie Monestier is a proud Davaoeña who lived in France for many years

Yes, Bon Appétit’s chef is Rosalie, a proud Davaoeña, born and raised in Tagum, Davao del Norte and an alumna of the University of Mindanao in high school and the University of the Immaculate Conception in college.   Rosalie worked and lived in France for ten years, cooking for an Italian diplomat who loved to host parties, so she has definitely honed her skills in whipping up French, Italian, and Mediterranean dishes.  She met Yves in France, where they fell in love and got married.  The couple decided to later move to Tagum, Rosalie’s hometown, with their two daughters named Pearl and Philippine, and opened their first Bon Appétit restaurant there in Osmeña Street.  And when they realized that 70 percent of their patrons mostly come from Davao City, they decided to open a branch here and get a house here, too. So the Monestiers are now truly certified Davaoeños.

Yves Monestier welcomes everyone with wine and cheese

Yves Monestier welcomes everyone with wine and cheese

Bon Appétit in French literally translates to good (bon) appetite (appétit).  It is an expression commonly used to wish someone enjoyment of the meal they are about to eat.  And enjoy I did when I had lunch there with media friends Liloh Evangelista of Zee Magazine and Nelson Bagaforo of Sun.Star Davao.  And because we were dining French-style, naturally it was a two-hour lunch with several courses and free-flowing wine and cheese and baguette, of course.

We started with Salade Nicoise (pronounced “ni-swaz”), a mixed Mediterranean salad consisting of green vegetables, cucumber, tomatoes, olives topped with tuna and anchovies in vinaigrette dressing. The name of the salad was derived from the French city of Nice (pronounced “nis”), which is located on the Mediterranean coast.

Our amazing appetizers

Our amazing appetizers

This was followed by Crepe au Sarrasin (buckwheat crepe) with ouef (fried egg), jambon (ham), and fromage (cheese). Crepe (pronounced “krep”) is a type of very thin pancake, usually made of wheat flour, and originated in Brittany in the northwest region of France.  Here in the Philippines, we mostly think of crepes only as dessert with fruits, whipped cream, ice cream, chocolate syrup, and Nutella (a brand of hazelnut spread). But in France, there are two types of crepe – the sweet and the savory. Usually, the savory crepes are called galettes. Crepe au Sarrasin falls on the savory type and, indeed, we savored every bite of it.

For the main course, we ordered three dishes. Liloh, the meat lover, chose Filet de Boeuf Grille (grilled tenderloin steak) with herbed potatoes; Nelson had the Pave de Blue Marlin Grille (grilled blue marlin steak) served with red mountain malagkit (sticky) rice; and I ordered Linguine aux Fruits de Mer (assorted seafood pasta).  When asked how she wanted her steak prepared, Liloh said “well done” (ah, we Filipinos love our meats charred, don’t we?) and Yves was horrified!  Because a steak “well done” is not an option for the French, it is a violation of a good piece of meat by turning it into the texture of leather. It makes it dry and tough to eat. So to calm our French host down, we settled for “medium well.” My pasta was perfectly done and I could taste the fruits of the sea happily soaked in delicious creamy sauce in my mouth.  It triggered a fond memory of a lunch I had in a bistro in Florence, Italy.  I am sure the Italian diplomat whom Rosalie used to cook for had been really sad to let her go.

Our perfectly cooked main course

Our perfectly cooked main course

And, of course, we always have room for dessert no matter how huge a meal we just had.  Especially when Rosalie told us that her apple pie is a secret family recipe taught to her by Yves’ mother.  We highly recommend you try it and it’s called Tarte aux Pommes (apple pie) in French on the menu or you can just point it out on the glass refrigerator where all the desserts are kept. Another must-try is the Crème Brulée (pronounced “krehm broo-lay”), an egg custard with a hard toffee caramel crust.  It is also known as “burnt cream” because sugar is caramelized on top of the custard with a small butane torch or by flambéing hard liquor on it.  It is simply divine and Liloh and I couldn’t get enough of it.

My friend Liloh cannot resist the divine creme brulee

My friend Liloh cannot resist the divine creme brulee

What’s a French meal without wine? France boasts of the world’s best wines so it is a pity if you do not order a glass or a whole bottle from Bon Appétit’s wine list. They carry mostly French and Italian wines.

If you would rather have a picnic a la French in the park or by the sea, you can also order freshly baked baguette, assorted cheese, a jar of foie gras (fat liver of a duck or goose), olives, and other yummy goodies especially prepared by Rosalie to go. And Yves would be happy to suggest which wines would best complement the food you have on your picnic basket.

All their French ingredients are authentic and regularly flown in from France by Yves’ family while the rest are freshly sourced locally. They also have potpourri in French lavander and Lait de Chevre (soap made of goat’s milk) for sale at the restaurant.

Lounging at the wine bar with Yves and Rosalie Monestier and my friend, Manny

Lounging at the wine bar with Yves and Rosalie Monestier and my friend, Manny

A Bon Appétit multi-course meal with wine can set you back a little over 500 pesos only.  A counterpart meal at any of the popular fast food joints (appetizers, main meal, dessert, and soft drinks) would cost you probably half of that, but it would not be as satisfying, not to mention very bad for your health.

The French eat long and well in a relaxed manner. I think Davaoeños are more French than American in our attitude towards good food and the good life.  We like long lunches and even longer dinners. We like taking our time and engaging in lively conversations with family and friends. And we do not find exotic food made of frog legs, duck liver, and snails necessarily icky.  So I am pretty sure Davaoeños are already loving Bon Appetit!

First appeared on Mindanao Times, July 30, 2011