Why bother using what you learned as an English major when you do so well with French food?

Poetry in Motion 

Why bother using what you learned as an English major when you do so well with French food?

If things had gone somewhat differently in Gigi Cowell's life, she'd be standing in front of a classroom reading Emily Dickinson: He ate and drank the precious words/His spirit grew robust/He knew no more that he was poor/Nor that his frame was dust.

But Dickinson wasn't Cowell's fate; eating and drinking were. After 17 years of waiting tables, Cowell -- who has a master's degree in English and plans to eventually go back and earn a Ph.D. -- decided that she had constantly been preparing for a next phase in her life when, she says, "all the time, restaurants were the next phase."

One could wax poetic, even robust, about Europa! A Café, the restaurant that took Gigi and her husband, Scott, to the next phase of their culinary careers. Over the past four years, the lunch-only bistro has become a magnet for the Brookside noontime crowd. "Mostly women," Gigi concedes, "but a lot more men recently, since Blackwell Sanders Peper Martin moved their offices to the Plaza."

Gigi and Scott Cowell met while working at the old Remington's in the Adams Mark Hotel. In 2001 they took a leap of faith and purchased their own business, even though it wasn't a restaurant in the traditional sense. For one thing, the former Decadenza Café, in the middle of the Crestwood Shops, didn't actually have a kitchen. In its own brief (and, despite its name, unpoetic) history, Decadenza was a coffeehouse and gift shop that sold food prepared by caterer Lon Lane. The Cowells were working as caterers around that time, too, providing food for Café Maison, another venue without an actual kitchen.

When they were lured to take over the Crestwood location, Scott and Gigi took their signature dishes with them: a chicken salad made with walnuts, golden raisins, shredded chicken and fresh dill; a soothing tomato-basil soup; and Gigi's lemon layer cake, adapted from her Grandmother Mary's recipe.

Café Maison has its own kitchen now (and sells its own versions of the Cowell dishes), but it lost some of its grande saveur after the couple left to open their own place, installing a bite-sized kitchen in the old Decadenza. Part of Europa's success has to do with its simple, uncomplicated menu and ridiculously generous portions, but it mainly works because of Scott's and Gigi's personalities and their warm rapport with customers.

"We have some patrons who come in for lunch a couple of times a week," says Gigi, who still waits tables every day, when she's not sneaking back to whip together another bowl of lemon cake batter and slide the pan into the oven.

Unlike Café Maison, though, the Cowells haven't had much luck offering dinner. Europa discontinued its Friday-night suppers after a year, Gigi says, because evening business demanded that they serve wine, and they couldn't get a liquor license, thanks to that big, beautiful church across the street.

That same church also proved a devilish problem for Sunday brunch. "There wasn't enough parking on Sunday morning," Gigi says. "And then we decided we didn't want to be working seven days a week anyway."

That makes sense to me. After all, the pair seems to be in constant motion the other six days of the week, turning out lunches that are more European in spirit than design. The current menu is an eclectic one, with nods to New Orleans; Italy; China; and Buffalo, New York, alongside dishes one might actually find in a Parisian bistro. The quiche du jour is a thick slab of savory custard baked in a wonderfully flaky crust. And the pâté platter is heaped with all of the accoutrements necessary for turning Scott's country-style pâté into a sumptuous meal. Artfully arranged around the thick slices of pâté (made with ground pork, veal, olives and vermouth, all wrapped in bacon and baked) are salty kalamata olives; crisp cornichons; slices of tart apple, cool cucumber and green pepper; a wedge of molten brie; purple grapes; and satiny Swiss cheese.

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