by Adam Sobsey
Let's get one thing out of the way: Yes, Bonne Soiree is expensive. It isn't a place to dine once a week, or probably even once a month, unless you're of means.
Even if you have the money to go there often, Bonne Soiree isn't the kind of place one's senses are likely to be able to patronize frequently. Unlike its nearby price-range competitors like Elaine's and Cypress on the Hill—Bonne Soiree is actually a tad more expensive than either—the atmosphere inside speaks to special occasions. The tiny dining room, elegantly done in light blue and deep purple, with antique washstands and warm, romantic lighting, is, in the words of its proprietress, Tina Vaughn, "an escape from your day." But it's no ordinary escape; it feels like a world apart from the place where your day is: a voluptuous, sumptuous yet elegant place, intimate and personal in a way that relates as much to other luxuries like massage or therapy as it does to mere sustenance. Not only is the menu handwritten, so is your check.
Everything about Bonne Soiree has that stamp of uniqueness on it, all the way down to the wines poured by the glass, which are unusual and in many cases almost unknown to the majority of diners. It's as though the place exists especially for you during your meal and will disappear, along with the entire restaurant, the moment you step back out into the world from which Bonne Soiree provided you a temporary escape.
That is to say that, carved out of a little panel of the old Courtyard mini-complex, on ho-hum Franklin Street in the scrubbed, preppy heart of Tarheeliana, Bonne Soiree is a bit like a dream. And sadly, it's one we won't be having much longer. Even though News & Observer food writer Greg Cox anointed it the Triangle's best fine dining restaurant in 2006 mere months after it opened, and its chef, Chip Smith, was just named a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation's Best ChefSoutheast prize, Bonne Soiree will close at the end of April. It really is disappearing.
The reasons behind Bonne Soiree's closing "is like a multi-course dinner," says Tina Vaughn, whose persona permeates the dining room—her small, attentive, quiet service staff is mostly there to support what she does, which is to embrace you in her hospitality. The former Rockette has a performer's sense of the inherent theatricality of a restaurant, and she sees to Bonne Soiree's every last detail. When we were admiring the color scheme to our waiter, he said, "Well, Tina painted it herself." And that's Vaughn's handwriting on your menu and check, filigreed and extravagant but in no way tacky—like everything the restaurant offers, at the height of good taste and never toppling over it into promiscuous "creativity."
The first course of that "multi-course dinner" that has led to the restaurant's closing, Vaughn says, is that "the recession hit at a time when we were fairly new and were still carrying the bulk of the [debt] load heavy." Smith and Vaughn opened Bonne Soiree, she says, without investors. ("I'm going to make it or lose it on my own," Vaughn recalls telling her partner before they opened. "I"m not going to take someone down with me.") Because the investment was all theirs, they've been able to do everything on their own terms, from choosing menus and paint colors to deciding when to close down. Bonne Soiree could probably scrape by for a while longer, Vaughn says, but "it feels good to make the decision ourselves and say, okay, next adventure. I don't know that we'd ever do it differently. There's nothing like being able to take care of people the way I want to take care of them, and for Chip to cook the way he wants to. It's been a gift, and we've enjoyed every minute of it. It's with no regret that we're moving on."
A second course in Bonne Soiree's last supper, Vaughn says, was "UNC's budget cuts. They're not coming out to spend." The entree course, though, was a new Courtyard landlord with a new lease that had rent increases in it, ones that were simply out of the tiny restaurant's reach. Bonne Soiree seats just 32 people at 11 tables, and it simply isn't possible to do the sort of volume that would have been necessary to come up with the rent. Although Vaughn says there was nothing personal and no bad blood between Bonne Soiree and the new landlord—"they weren't bullies or anything; they're just businesspeople with a note to pay," she says, and adds that the current, expiring lease offered "generous low rent"—the new lease was "the last straw," she says, in an already meager economy.
Smith and Vaughn did consider moving the restaurant to another location, but that would have required more loans to build out the new space—on top of the $200,000 they still owe on Bonne Soiree—and this time they would have needed backing that simply wasn't forthcoming from local patrons. As Vaughn freely acknowledged, "there just aren't a lot of people who can afford to spend $150 on dinner very often," and still fewer who have the means to finance a restaurant.
It's often difficult, if you've worked in the fine dining business—I have eight years' experience—to be much impressed by fancy food, especially here in the Triangle where certain ingredients and ideas seem to make the rounds of every upscale restaurant (many of whose chefs are proteges of Magnolia Grill's Ben Barker, perhaps another reason for the similarities). That's particularly true of "regional" specialties, which, although they're served in the best and most earnest spirit of local pride, occasionally wind up coming off as menu kitsch. I like collard greens and black-eyed peas a lot, but I don't think I need to see them on another $27 plate ever again.
On the other hand, it's possible to sink everything under truffles and foie gras—and indeed, Bonne Soiree features plentiful iterations of both of those ingredients. When we went there last week, both of our appetizers contained black truffles. The quail main course was stuffed with foie gras, and the duck was crowned with a crostini that had been freighted with a duxelles of mushrooms mixed with duck liver and then "toasted" in the pan where the duck was cooking—irresistible.
The dining at Bonne Soiree is unabashedly fine on the plate as well as on the walls and floor. The scallops appetizer featured leeks and fennel that were just-cooked, rather than braised, as is customary, to baby-food softness: You got to enjoy the fresh crunch and flavor of the vegetables (a reminder, among other things, that the taste of fennel changes markedly as it goes through the stages of cooking). That duxelles-toast? It sat like a prince on two tiers of duck : on the bottom, in a circle, were slices of the breast—roasted slowly, Smith told us, rather than at crispy-skin high-temp, as it's usually done. The skin of Smith's duck was thus glossy and unctuous, the meat almost fork-tender.
Atop the breast was the thigh, which had been braised and then apparently added into the pan with the breast, so that it got nice and browned on the outside. The rest of the plate was almost Middle Eastern: salsify, a prune paste, pistachios, and a sort of pilaf made of farro, an ancient Fertile-Crescent wheat grain. As with the leeks and fennel that accompanied the scallops appetizer, Smith didn't cook the farro to mush; it retained its texture, as did the brunoise of vegetables it contained. This was high-toned, high-grade food, but also hearty, deeply flavorful and satisfying. There was nothing fussy or pretentious about it, a reminder of Bonne Soiree's culinary connection to Provence's country-cuisine roots.
All of that—along with Vaughn's wine pairings, including a couple of bell-ringing surprises—were enough to send us home happy, but we had one more course, of course: dessert. For me a major test of a restaurant is, oddly, that last creation. Adam Gopnik's article in the New Yorker offers some reinforcement of that notion, and as Vaughn put it (on Smith's behalf), the restrictions on ingredients in most desserts—basically sugar, flour, eggs and butter, plus one or two other things, usually—require the pastry chef's full analytical attentions and rigor in executing the dish. That's very unlike the freewheeling, often improvisational creativity of most savory chefs' inventions.
Also, I don't really like dessert all that much. Always too sweet for me; always too mushy, too silly, and too given to a strain of the collard-green syndrome: I don't really want to end my serious and elaborate meal with "down-home" banana pudding, or with juvenile chocolate-chip cookie-dough ice cream, or with otherwise-accomplished desserts cheekily garnished with Milk Duds. It's like being winked at after sex.
I don't know whether Smith—the only chef I've ever come across who makes his own desserts (Vaughn told me that Smith learned to do sweets mainly because they couldn't afford a really good pastry chef)—has a similar suspicion; but I do know that the sophistication of his desserts surely owes to his training in the savory kitchen, and so to a certain outsider's eye on the pastry station.
For the record, I am nothing like a chocolate fan—never really saw the big deal, which perhaps makes me a desperately limited dessert audience; I guess it's like a football fan not caring for pass plays. Nonetheless, it's a little dreary to me that restaurant dessert menus are, increasingly, turning into little more than a delivery platform for chocolate packages, with a few fruit and nut afterthoughts.
Why I ordered the Valentino, then, I'm not really sure: it's got chocolate in it. But not only chocolate—and as it turns out, unsurprisingly, Smith's "Valentino" isn't actually the dessert commonly recognized as a Valentino: It's something much more complex, a variation on a dacquoise, a type of layer cake built around a nut meringue and buttercream. (Smith used the term "Valentino" in month-long honor of the recent red-letter day for lovers.)
Bonne Soiree's Valentino had a layer of espresso butter-cream, some chocolate ganache, an almond layer bursting with cinnamon—a canny textural counterpoint of crunchy nuts against all that creaminess—all topped with a glossy "chocolate veneer," as Vaughn called it. It was about as sleek and racy as an 800-calorie dessert can be: elegant, balanced, complex—a grownup dessert in a grownup restaurant. Now we were ready to go home.
Restaurants go out of business all the time, usually with the shocking, ungraceful abruptness and mystery of a suicide: The Barbecue Joint, Rockwood Filling Station and its successor, The Fish Shack—all three of them popular ventures—folded quietly, its regulars showing up one day to find locked doors. This is a very, very tough business.
But Bonne Soiree, in the best theater tradition, is taking some final, lingering bows for its audience, and it still has a few potentially showstopping encores in its repertoire. On Sunday, March 20, the restaurant will offer a seafood dinner in honor of Tom Robinson, the late, beloved Carrboro seafood purveyor whose still-thriving store Vaughn estimates provides 90% of Bonne Soiree's seafood. "I told Kay [Hamrick, Robinson's longtime sweetheart, who was dining alone at the table next to ours the night went to dinner] that I cannot close without doing a 'Tom dinner,'" Vaughn says, remembering Robinson's regular visits for afternoon cappuccino or wine.
After that, look for two wine dinners. March 22 focuses on the wines of Littorai, a highly-esteemed, small-production Sonoma County winery (the San Francisco Chronicle's 2010 Winemaker of the Year) that makes some of the region's most sought-after pinot noirs. An April 10 dinner will be exclusively devoted to female winemakers, Vaughn's celebration of the sisterhood in food and wine. She is also hoping to have a Sunday afternoon event of cocktails, wine and fine finger food.
And in looking ahead to the restaurant's last week or so, Vaughn said, she is trying to cajole Smith into going out in a Chez Panisse-style blaze of glory: set menus at a fixed price, allowing Smith to pull out whatever stops he has yet to open, and to let his whims guide his cooking in his final days. "Our focus is still on the restaurant until the very last day," Vaughn says. "We're still 100% Bonne Soiree until April 30 at midnight and the last glass of wine has been poured. And when that curtain drops, we'll figure out what to do."
They may not know what that will be yet—"We're dream-heavy and penny-poor," Vaughn says, laughing at their peculiar situation in the insouciant way that only artists can—but they do know where it will be: Smith and Vaughn are going back to New York City ("it's home to me," Vaughn calls it), where they lived and worked for years before moving to North Carolina, Smith's birthplace (Greenville, to be precise), and opening their first restaurant out on the coast. Don't be surprised to stumble upon them running a cozy little place in, say, the West Village, if you visit in a year or two (although Smith wouldn't mind cooking under another restaurant's auspices, and Vaughn has interests outside of fine dining).
In fact, don't be surprised by anything they do next: Vaughn says that she and Smith decided to open Bonne Soiree in Chapel Hill—rather than upstate New York, where they were also considering—by "flipping a coin on the New York State Thruway in a snowstorm."