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.
And even if you have the money to go there often, Bonne Soiree isn't the kind of place you'll likely patronize frequently. Unlike its nearby competitors like Elaine's and Cypress on the Hill, the atmosphere 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 your day: voluptuous and sumptuous yet elegant and intimate.
Vaughn's 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 expressed admiration for 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.
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, a native of Greenville, N.C., was recently named a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef: Southeast, Bonne Soiree will close at the end of April. Smith and Vaughn plan to relocate to New York City, where they lived before coming to North Carolina.
The reasons behind Bonne Soiree's closing are "like a multi-course dinner," says Vaughn, the first of which, 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 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."
Bonne Soiree could probably scrape by for a while, Vaughn says, but "it feels good to make the decision ourselves and say, OK, 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, Vaughn says, was "UNC's budget cuts. They're [employees] not coming out to spend." The main course, though, was a new Courtyard landlord with a new lease that increased the rent beyond the restaurant's reach. Bonne Soiree seats just 32 people at 11 tables, and it's impossible to do the necessary volume to come up with the rent. Although Vaughn says there is 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"—the new lease was "the last straw" in a meager economy.
Smith and Vaughn considered moving the restaurant, but that would have required more loans on top of the $200,000 they still owe. This time they would have needed backing that 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.
That Smith and Vaughn have done it their way at Bonne Soiree is reflected not just in the financing and decor. Its essence, Smith's food, stands apart from many of its fine dining competitors in the Triangle, where certain ingredients and ideas seem to make the rounds of every upscale restaurant. 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—and sometimes cheap as well. I like collard greens and black-eyed peas a lot, but I don't think I need to see them on another $27 plate again.
Yet, it's possible to sink everything under truffles and foie gras—and indeed, Bonne Soiree features plentiful iterations of both. When we went there last week, both of our appetizers contained black truffles. The quail main course was stuffed with foie gras; 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 scallops appetizer featured leeks and fennel that were just-cooked, rather than braised to baby-food softness. You could 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 nearly fork-tender.
The rest of the plate was almost Middle Eastern: salsify, a prune paste, pistachios and a 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.
Along with Vaughn's wine pairings, including a couple of bell-ringing surprises, that was enough to send us home happy, but we wanted dessert. A major test of a restaurant is, oddly, that last creation. As Vaughn put it (on Smith's behalf), the restrictions on ingredients in most desserts—sugar, flour, eggs and butter, plus one or two additional items—require the pastry chef's full analytical attentions and rigor in executing the dish.
I don't really like dessert that much. I don't want to end a serious meal with "down-home" banana pudding or with juvenile chocolate-chip cookie-dough ice cream. It's like being winked at after sex.
And I am not a chocolate fan, which perhaps makes me a limited dessert audience. Why I ordered the "Valentino," then, I'm not sure: It contains chocolate. But unsurprisingly, Smith's Valentino is complex, a variation on a dacquoise, a type of layer cake built around a nut meringue and buttercream. Bonne Soiree's Valentino had a layer of espresso buttercream, 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 grown-up dessert in a grown-up restaurant. Now we were ready to go home.
Restaurants go out of business all the time, usually with the abruptness and mystery of a suicide. The Barbecue Joint, Rockwood Filling Station and its successor, The Fish Shack—all popular ventures—folded quietly. This is a 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 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 percent 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 we went to dinner] that I cannot close without doing a 'Tom dinner,'" Vaughn says, remembering Robinson's afternoon visits for cappuccino or wine.
March 22 focuses on the wines of Littorai, a highly esteemed, small-production Sonoma County winery that makes some of the region's most sought-after pinot noirs and chardonnays. An April 10 dinner will be exclusively devoted to women winemakers. Vaughn also hopes to have a Sunday afternoon event of cocktails, wine and finger food.
In looking ahead to the restaurant's final weeks, Vaughn says she is trying to cajole Smith into setting menus at a fixed price, allowing him to pull out whatever stops he has yet to open and to let his whims guide his cooking. "Our focus is still on the restaurant until the very last day," Vaughn says. "We're still 100 percent 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."