Bistro owner brings the 'best of Europe' to Rochester
On the first floor of a hundred-year-old building on North Broadway sits a bright, airy space between a gray tin ceiling and gray carpet-tile floor. That space is Le Petit Café, where owner Deirdre Conroy wants to introduce Rochester’s dining scene to European cuisine and service.
“We bring the best of Europe to here,” Conroy said during a recent tour.
But they don’t bring any one best thing for long. The restaurant opened on April 20, and its menu is already undergoing a turnover.
One favorite dish among patrons since the restaurant opened was a fish mousse baked in a terrine mold, paired with a cucumber shallot pickle.
“It’s elegant, it’s clean, it’s beautifully flavored, and it’s off the menu as of this week,” said Conroy.
It’s a simple equation for Conroy: new ingredients in-season mean new dishes. Rhubarb was at the forefront of their dessert menu for the last month. Raspberries are coming next. A personal relationship with her suppliers helps ensure she stays flush in fresh food.
“If I can use and tell you the name of the supplier of my beef from over here in Elgin, and my pork lady from the other side of Byron, and my prawn lady from Land Springs, Iowa, that, for me, is a win,” said Conroy.
Conroy is as relentless about seasonally-fresh ingredients as she is European-style service.
Guests are invited — even encouraged — to sit around and converse for extended periods of time. There is a large ‘sharing table,’ capable of sitting a party of 17, but it will often be filled with people who didn’t know each other before dinner. Usually, said Conroy, by the time dessert comes, the table feels like one big party.
“It’s a different way of running service,” said Conroy. “It’s not as fast paced.”
Conroy is able to dedicate her focus to service, in part, because of the prep-heavy nature of her menu. Fresh bread is baked daily, and the preparations for other dishes typically commence hours before they reach a table. By the time an order is placed, nearly every dish can be put together, plated, and served. Simple come dinner time, but time-consuming on the front end.
On the menu until Friday, for instance, was a daube using beef cheeks paired with white corn polenta. The beef spends a day in a marinade, and another day being cooked. The chicken confit dish on the menu for this week clocks in at a slightly shorter 14-hour prep time.
The clarity of Conroy’s vision for her first restaurant could be attributed to her years of experience in the food industry.
She went to culinary school in Ireland, where she is from, and trained in Michelin star restaurants in Dublin and just outside Belfast. Conroy also spent time in Australia working on yachts, fabulous restaurants, and not-so-fabulous restaurants while backpacking.
While in Australia, Conroy got a food science degree and moved into food production. She also worked for a Wagyu beef company and a fruit producer before relocating back to Ireland and where she got a job with the Irish Dairy Board (now “Ornua”). Soon, the Dairy Board transferred her to Byron to help facilitate the buyout of a cheese factory, and Conroy found herself living in Rochester. From Byron, she was transferred to Saudi Arabia to work at a white cheese factory. Eventually she returned to Rochester to get married (she’d met someone in Byron) and start up her restaurant.
It took her time to select a space, but when she toured the historic Avalon building, she knew she’d found the right spot. The windows facing Broadway allow for plentiful natural light, and the pressed tin ceiling was already painted the color grey she wanted to do her restaurant in. That neutral color scheme, she said, allows the food to pop, and for visual emphasis to fall on the wooden tables she and her husband made out of red oak, spruce pine, and reclaimed beams from a schoolhouse.
If you plan to pay a visit to Le Petit, Conroy suggests making reservations ahead of time. She also recommends budgeting two hours or more for the experience.
“Come here and dine,” she said. “Don’t come here for a platter of food.”
Bryan Lund covers politics and culture for Med City Beat.