St. Tropez is located in the Hotel Belmont on North Sheridan, in the space occupied for so many years by Tango, one of the city's flagship restaurants a decade ago. The restaurant has been completely redecorated, with an eclectic but effective mixture of styles. The decor borrows from lots of sources -- a little deco, a little southwest, lots of light, lots of mirrors.
Chef-owner Guy Petit came to St. Tropez from stints at Cricket's and Maxim's in Chicago and the Plaza Athenee in Paris. His menu is inventive, with an emphasis on freshness. He draws on many of the great cuisines of the world, and if a French accent predominates, French prices don't. On top of other virtues, St. Tropez is a bargain.
After disappointing bread -- one of the few off notes of the night -- we sampled appetizers that showed off St. Tropez's versatility.
The shrimp cocktail Dijonnais looked sublime, with large, plump shrimp set off against a pale mustard sauce, but only half the dish tasted as good as it looked. The sauce turned out to be light and spicy, but it just couldn't rescue dull, almost tasteless shrimp. The calamari salad was an equally mixed experience. It's a pretty dish, with the concentric circles of squid set off by both green and red-tinged lettuce. If the shrimp had too little taste, this dish had almost too much, with a bitter overtaste from the marinade and the radicchio. Still, it's an inventive dish with promise.
Prosciutto and melon -- another appetizer of Italian origin -- is excellent, with enough fruit and ham for two. Even better is a wonderful seasonal opener, softshell crabs in a dark, redolent sauce. The appetizer portion is more than generous, but it's also available as a main, course. The best appetizer we had was the most French. Stuffed turnip with wild mushroom compote is not a dish you'd expect to like on a hot night, but it's a subtle mixture of tastes and textures, rich enough for winter and delicate enough for summer.
The house salad is more than adequate, with crisp Bibb lettuce, endive, and mustard vinaigrette. Main courses again show St. Tropez's diversity. In fact, a trip around the menu is like a world cruise. Among lots of other choices, there's whitefish fillet with gazpacho sauce (Spain), beignets of shrimp a la Japonnaise (Japan), grilled skinned chicken breast Basquaise (Basque Provinces), and veal scaloppine with morels (Italy).
The dish we chose -- we had room for only one after all those appetizers -- was scallops in a ginger sauce. This dish resembles a Chinese classic, whitefish with ginger and soy sauce. Like much of St. Tropez's cuisine, it's a happy marriage of East and West.
Desserts are up to the standards set by the rest of the meal. Creme brulee is an excellent rich custard. Better yet is the souffle of the night (strawberry the evening we were there). It's a tiny souffle that leaves nothing extra for the rest of your party, but it's so moist and loaded with fresh fruit flavor that you won't want to share it anyway.
St. Tropez has a small but well-chosen wine list, with an emphasis on interesting, moderately priced wines.
A lot of restaurants these days are anonymous -- they're adequate but featureless, competent but without personality. St. Tropez wins by showing a careful, unpretentious intelligence in all that it does. From the decor to the dessert, it gives you solid, understated quality.
St. Tropez is located at 3170 N. Sheridan; 327-1100. It's open Sunday through Thursday from 5 to 10:30, Friday and Saturday till 11. Prices are moderate: appetizers, $2.50-$5.25; entrees, $9.50-$16; desserts, $2.75-$4.50. Reservations are a good idea, and all major credit cards are accepted.