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A French fête: Popular bistro's Bastille Day party takes Lakeway by storm

Michael Barnes
mbarnes@statesman.com

Sounds like the premise for a romantic comedy: They were young, in love and living in Paris. The enamored couple work 20-hour days to open their dream restaurant in the post-bohemian Montmartre district, then they give it all up for an isolated farmhouse in Normandy. When their gastronomic operations there grow too burdensome more 20-hour days prepping, cooking and serving, this time at a stately chateau they escape to the United States.

A digital quiz leads Cesidio and Laureen D'Andrea to a sparkling lake in Central Texas where, eventually, they open yet another cafe. Now, even during the summer, their 50-seat Artisan Bistro on RM 620 in Lakeway bustles, serving traditional French comfort food.

Tonight, they plan to entertain hundreds of guests with a buffet, sing-alongs and outdoor games during a Bastille Day fête.

"The purpose was that Cesidio not work 20 hours a day," a pleasantly exasperated Laureen D'Andrea says. "We still haven't gotten there."

Cesidio D'Andrea, 49, came by his epicurean obsessions in a familial way. His father was a farmer from San Benedetto in the L'Aquila region of Italy. His mother: "She was cooking, cooking, cooking — like an Italian mother," D'Andrea laughs. "That's where my love for food started."

After World War II, his family immigrated to France, where Cesidio was born in rural Tigery, not far from Paris. He studied culinary arts at Lycée Hôtelier Château des Coudraies, which included a training restaurant.

This country mouse met his city mouse soon after. Laureen Sicart D'Andrea, 40, grew up in New York City's Upper West Side. Her father is a financial adviser and her mother owned a perfume company, named, in a bit of foreshadowing, L'Artisan Parfumeur. She studied hotel management at Glion, near Montreux, Switzerland. A final internship landed her at the Hotel Lancaster off the Champs-Elysées in Paris.

Almost immediately, she was sneaking out with a certain, slightly older hotel chef there named Cesidio.

"I shouldn't have been dating him," admits Laureen, whose long, dark hair periodically sweeps girlishly across her face. "But nobody knew."

They couldn't keep the relationship secret forever, since Laureen became pregnant with their only child, Giovanni. The couple's second collaboration was La Place, a restaurant in Montmartre.

"We were busy, busy, busy," says Cesidio, adjusting his artisan glasses, which help transform the hearty chef into the image of a French intellectual. "And then France voted for the 35-hour work week."

Business fell off during the newly extended weekends, as Parisians fled to the less pricey countryside.

"The French didn't realize that they would have more time, but not more money," Laureen explains.

Suffering their first professional burnout, they turned to Cesidio's already purchased but rarely visited house in the middle of a field near Neufchâtel-en-Bray, Normandy.

"We went from the hustle and bustle of Paris to Normandy, where I did the whole Martha Stewart thing with a basket, picking our own vegetables, decorating with home-grown flowers," Laureen says.

The quiet life didn't last long. First, Cesidio dabbled in innovative pastries. Then the family catering business took off. On a walk along a beach — to get away from it all! — they saw a perfect spot to open a second cafe. And then ...

"I fell in love with a castle," Cesidio say. "And the castle fell in love with me."

It was an imposing family manse near Dieppe — Chateau de Miromesnil, birthplace of writer Guy de Maupassant. The D'Andreas joined the owner in business, first catering from the chateau, then opening a cooking school there.

"Thinking back on it, it sounds wonderful, doesn't it?" says Laureen, smiling, because she knows where the story is headed: another burnout.

By 2007, the business was booming. A 200-person wedding meant 72 hours of work. Then along came new French tax laws that cut deeply into their profits.

"I needed to take off 10 days, just go to New York," Laureen remembers. "When I got there, I called and said ‘I have bad news for you: We are moving here.' He said: ‘Sure, but come home first.' "

So where to transfer in the States? A friend encouraged Laureen, Cesidio and Giovanni, now a teen, to the take the online Sperlings BestPlaces quiz, which helps people relocate.

"But we were looking for completely different things," Laureen says. "It suggested places you never thought about. Finally, I said to my friend: ‘Your quiz doesn't work. It keeps sending me to Texas!' ‘Where in Texas?' ‘Austin keeps coming back up.' "

Her friend told Laureen: "I think the three of you should get a plane ticket and go, because that's exactly where you should move.'"

The family researched Central Texas schools for Giovanni, narrowing the choices down to Lake Travis or Westlake high schools.

"He chose the school," Laureen says. "We chose the house."

Almost immediately, Cesidio catered. Then a mutual customer introduced them to Gloria Parker, the owner of a wine bar in a tidy strip shopping center. They offered to help Parker with a light bar menu.

"People loved what we did," Laureen says. "But if we wanted to do better, we needed a kitchen."

So in collaboration with Parker, they expanded into the retail space next door, installed a kitchen and, voilà, Artisan Bistro.

"Everything we came to avoid, we are doing," Laureen jokes. "But we love it."

While Cedisio personally specializes in creative cuisine, Artisan, which opened on Valentine's Day 2009, sticks mostly to basic bistro items: Onion soup, foie gras, escargot, boeuf bourguignon, cassoulet, bouillabaisse, crêpes Suzette.

In 2010, as the French holiday Bastille Day approached, they decided to throw a small party.

"We passed the word around to our customer base, many of them French," Laureen says. "Printed out fake Euros. Then 250 people showed up."

This year, a prix fixe of $25 opens the doors to a buffet and booths with samples from vendors: Kohana Coffee, which makes an organic French Roast special blend for the bistro; Con' Olio, the olive oil specialists in the Arboretum; and Dorian Wines. Like last year, a D'Andrea friend will sing in French. Outside, where most guests will gather as the sun sets, others will assay games of pétanque.

"Last year, we didn't know what to expect," Laureen says of their first Bastille Day foray. "We were blown away."

mbarnes@statesman.com

Artisan Bistro

Hours: The bakery is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 8 a.m. to noon Sunday. The restaurant is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch and 5 to 10 p.m. for dinner.

Where: 900 RM 620 S. in Lakeway.

Contact: 263-8728; www.artisanbistroaustin.com .