The life of a restaurant
is closely tied to its ownership, just as a sports team is. Some restaurateurs open a place and stay in that location with the same staff and menu for years, at times, a lifetime. Other restaurants change hands. The founding owner moves on or quits the restaurant business which is notorious for its long hours and finicky profit margins. Buying an ongoing restaurant has its pluses and minuses. The pluses include name recognition and local familiarity. The minuses include name recognition and local familiarity. In Charlotte, just as in other locations, a restaurant rarely gets a second chance to make a first impression, even if it has changed hands. In addition, Charlotte restaurant-goers have developed a reputation, which apparently has newly opened corporate chain restaurants salivating over their bottom lines, for patronizing the new, glitzy, cavernous restaurants while neglecting the small, locally-owned fabulous ones. It's our bad, and I personally miss many of the talented folks who are no longer here to create great food. European-born Thierry and Patricia Moity opened Patou French Bistro
in Dilworth in 1996, but sold this successful restaurant to Rachid and Laura Ouchou in July 2001. The Moitys went on to open Caprice Bistro in downtown Wilmington, NC. Rachid Ouchou said he had "only been a regular customer" when he heard about the opportunity to buy the restaurant. "It had always been a dream to own a French restaurant in the Bistro style. I couldn't pass up the opportunity." Ouchou, a native Moroccan, left home at 17 for Toulouse in the south of France. He spent three and a half years studying math and physics while working in area bistros and vineyards. In 1986, he moved to Charlotte to complete his degree in Electrical Engineering and worked in restaurants here as well. While waiting tables at Dilworth's now-closed, but at that time renowned, Spanish restaurant Tio Montero, he met his wife Laura, a Charlottean and a customer. Ouchou has not changed the kitchen since Chef Thierry Moity left. Patou's chef is Philip Barnes who had been Moity's sous chef for many years. Most of the staff from Moity's kitchen has remained as well. "My purpose was to keep the same style: classic French food," he said. "About twenty percent of the original menu items are still on the menu." What you find at Patou is a buoyant and animated environment: a couple talking about a recent trip to France, a four-top sharing a bottle of Rhone wine, a single guy eating bouillabaisse while reading a novel, and a boisterous birthday party in the back room. Patou is all about small-town charm with a uvular r, small town French cooking, and gentle pricing. The space, expanded to 114 seats including a room available for private parties, is a stunning illusion. It's a cross between a bistro and a brasserie in both appearance and menu items: dark hardwood floors, white lace curtains, tablecloths with butcher paper atop, French ballads, and hearty simple dishes. The 60 bottle wine list is primarily French, some Californian, and ranges in price from $28 to $85, with most selections at the lower price end. Though you will spot freshly made pate, terrine, and sausages, the most appealing beginnings on Patou's menu are the classically steamed mussels (Moules Marinieres) emerging from a bright white wine and garlic broth. Another treat are the half dozen Roquefort and butter frosted baked snails. Salads are entree sized, or at least sharable by a table of three. The Salad Nicoise stars with the usual suspects, and is delightfully satisfying. If you've ordered everything that looked good on the starter side of the menu, you probably won't have room for the entrees. While the mains may fade a bit in comparison to the first act, they're worthy of a go nevertheless. The bouillabaisse is a hearty dish made richly dense by scallops, shrimp, mussels, bits of salmon, and a dollop of sharply flavored rouille. The quail duo, wonderfully accompanied by caramelized apples and cinnamon scented couscous, is so tender you may be given to gnawing on their teensiest bones. Deny yourself dessert in a French restaurant? Mon Dieu! Do not skip on toying with their profiteroles. That, and espresso, will set you up for the evening. Patou's ambiance is relaxed and calm. The former Patou team was known for their wonderfully flavored dishes, but, at times, faltered in service: that faux pas has completely disappeared. Ouchou's capable staff is there to make sure you enjoy yourself. With their kitchen crew offering hearty, but in a polite way, French bistro dishes, how can you go wrong?