The plates, where appropriate, arrive garnished with thin medallions of potato and fresh vegetables; for every entree, aside from the pastas, a choice of salad or soup du jour (an inspired chicken-and-spinach was featured on a recent evening)is offered. The salad is a bland little affair. The soups, though, are exceptional, most notably the French onion gratinee, a hearty brown broth spiked with port wine and a buoyant lid of bread chunks and cheese. Lapo's strengths of soups and sauces more than make up for a mediocrity like the slightly tough roast loin of pork with ginger sauce, or an outright mistake like the grilled chicken breast with Key lime essence, a char-grilled sour note in the otherwise lovely symphony of our meal. The lime, too pronounced for my taste, coated the dry breast a bit bitterly. Most certainly this dish is a nod to the New World, but better left behind by a chef whose true talents are classic.
Our waiter, attentive for ten minutes and absent for thirty, nonetheless charmed us when I asked for the best dish on the menu. "Madame," he said, "in a good restaurant, there are no 'best' choices, only different ones." After tasting the cassoulet Toulousain, made with navy beans, confit of duck, and garlic sausage, I disagree. Even in the better restaurants, there are stellar moments, and this was one. A cassoulet (a stew of beans) typically cooks in earthenware for hours with goose, pork, mutton, or duck. The traditional version of Toulouse calls for confit de canard, or preserved duck, and sausage. Cafe Europa's honest re-creation provided a plethora of pleasures, the smooth navy beans an excellent contrast to the spicy sausage and duck, a game bird that holds up well against the garlic. Unfortunate but true, this dish, like the others, filled us beyond the possibility of sampling dessert.
The Lapos hope their changes in decor and menu, coupled with an aggressive advertising campaign, will boost their status, though they naturally expect the summer slowdown. Daughter Yvonne Perez, who works as a manager in the restaurant, says the regular clientele has been supportive all along, stopping to inquire about their progress during the rebuilding process, dining frequently now that they're finally serving again. When I asked her how she felt about reopening just in time for the 1993 hurricane season, she replied, "We hadn't really thought about it like that. We're scared, very worried. But it won't happen again." Chances are it won't. And chances are Cafe Europa will thrive.