July 2009

Pg 54
By: Maria Sonnenberg

Orchestrated Dining


   On the surface, siblings often follow different drummers, but at their core is always a common thread that binds them together. A case in point is Café Margaux and Ulysses Prime Steakhouse.  At a casual glance, the brother-and –sister restaurants in Cocoa Village couldn’t be more different.  Margaux is feminine, sophisticated, while younger sibling Ulysses is bold and masculine. Yet the two restaurants share more than the wall that separates them.  Although their menus vary significantly, both reflect the passion for perfection that is the hallmark of Brevard restaurateurs Alex and Pam Litras.

The well-established, nineteen-year-old Margaux provides an excellent role model for the up-and-coming three-year-old Ulysses. Considered by many gourmands as one of the top restaurants in Florida, Café Margaux was inducted in 2007 into the top 20 restaurants in Florida Trend’s “Golden Spoon Hall of Fame.” “That was quite an honor,” says Alex.
Margaux, known for its creative French and European cuisine, is also included in the DiRoNa- Distinguished Restaurants of North America- compendium of fine dining and gourmet restaurants in the United States, Canada and Mexico. With 4,000 bottles and 400 varieties, Cafe Margaux’s wine selections have repeatedly caught the eye of Wine Spectator.  For five years, this arbiter of enological quality has presented Margaux with its award of excellence. Litras takes pride in his restaurants’ outstanding menu, but for him, the dining experience is not complete without ambiance that appropriately frames the food. “Dining is really about mood,” he says.

The physical design of both Margaux and Ulysses serve as unique backdrops to the drama of the meal. 
Litras credits his artist wife Pam’s creativity for imbuing the restaurants with distinct personalities.
At Café Margaux, where entrées include such complicated delicacies as spice rubbed seared ostrich tenderloin served over Israeli couscous with a Pinot Noir, bacon and horseradish sauce; the atmosphere is feminine, particularly in the pink and green rooms.  To balance the space, Pam inserted the animal room in between.  The three alcoves each offer their own intimate perspectives.
“When you’re in one of the alcoves, you do not feel you’re in a large restaurant,” says Alex.
Most formal of the three is the pink room, Margaux’s first dining area.  Uncompromisingly feminine, the space is genteel and welcoming, particularly in contrast to the animal room next door, where Pam blended her elaborate and colorful animal paintings with an earthy palette in furnishings and draperies.
“We’re honored when some guests come in wearing animal motif because they like the animal room so much,” says Alex.
The texture in the animal room is precursor to the mood Pam and Alex later infused into both Ulysses and in their Mediterranean room banquet facilities.
Finishing the triumvirate of Margaux dining spaces is the playful green room, home to Pam’s whimsical and colorful foam painting.
All accessories, down to salt and pepper shakers, were specifically selected fpr each room setting.
“Each piece belongs in a certain room, which drives the wait staff crazy,” says Pam.
Pam’s artistic touch also extends to the elaborate hand painted desserts patrons so adore.
“Presentation is most important to me,” she says.
“Food not only has to taste good, it has to look good.”
Margaux fan Martha Pommer and her sister are devoted fans of this edible art.
“Her designs are wonderful,” she says.
“We don’t eat the designs because they’re so beautiful.  We don’t want to mar the pictures.”
Pam’s desserts add the finishing touch to the carefully orchestrated dining experience.
“This is the grand finale to the meal,” adds Alex.
“The dessert is a piece of art.”
The Litras’ passion for culinary design is shared by Margaux’s Chef Erol Tugrul as well as by Chef Kevin Johnson, the man in charge of Ulysses kitchen.
At Ulysses, the mood is self-assured, as befits a restaurant that specializes in prime aged steaks and lobster.
“Ulysses was a team effort,” says Alex.
“I wanted it to replicate a gentleman’s club, but not going to the extreme of having moose heads on the wall.  Pam came up with the design.  Some people thought the dark colors she chose would close it in, but it ended up making the place feel rich and open.”
The centerpiece of Ulysses is its kitchen, encased in brown and ochre tones of art glass that swirl, mimicking the flames of the grill. “We didn’t want it to be claustrophobic.  We wanted to have an open design but we didn’t want the noise or the aroma from the kitchen.”The glass becomes a piece of performance are when chefs move slightly behind it and the grill spills real flames to join the abstract versions in the glass.
As the name implies, Ulysses is a nod to Litras’ Greek roots, sp Pam incorporated Mediterranean touches through the chandeliers and other fixtures. As opposed to Margaux’s delicate china settings, the Ulysses table setting is sleek, solid.
Café Margaux and Ulysses Steakhouse are part of the Belair Courtyard, the historic 1920s building that neighbors the Cocoa Village Playhouse.  Pam and Alex acquired the courtyard two years ago, completing the journey begun in 1990 with the opening of then 13-table Café Margaux. Surrounded by intriguing shops, the two-story courtyard offers a seductive outdoor dining option for patrons of both Ulysses and Margaux.
Upstairs, the Mediterranean room caters to private parties and special events, such as outstanding cognac, brandy and sake pairings. In this second story sanctum, Pam combined the dynamic palette of Ulysses with organic touches such as antelope horn sconces. Patrons laud the couple for their almost-obsessive attention to detail.  John Campbell was one of Margaux’s first customers.  He hasn’t stopped dining there since. “I can’t say enough about the restaurant,” says Campbell, of Merritt Island. “If anyone gives us a gift certificate, it’s a gift certificate to Café Margaux.” In fact, after Campbell noticed available office space in upstairs Belair, he’s been toying with the idea of leasing it as a weekend getaway. Richard Beagley is another regular drawn to the atmosphere of the two sibling restaurants. “A lot of the time we go there on the spur of the moment,” says the Merritt Island resident. “It’s such a relaxing place.” Like one of the Litras’ exquisitely paired wine dinners, Margaux and Ulysses have proven a perfect pair. “They play off each other,” says Alex. “We have customers who frequent Café Margaux more often and Ulysses occasionally and vise versa.  I find it funny when I hear couples arguing about which of the two restaurants to go to.” An excellent introduction to both Café Margaux and Ulysses Steakhouse can be found at the many special dining events Alex and Pam Litras host throughout the year.  For menu information, visit Margaux.com or ulyssesprime.com.