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Published: Saturday, 1/15/2011

Memories shared with friends sweeten Florida meal

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Interesting conversation with special friends can add several memorable courses to dinner far from home. And so it was on one balmy evening here in South Florida when my place of honor was between Didier Moritz and Erwin Meier in a banquette at Truluck's.

It was expected that the restaurant, which is one of 11 in a family-owned chain, would be outstanding. After all, my hosts have been identified with haute cuisine in northwest Ohio since 1968. Would the founders of the former LaBerge du Port on the river in Vermilion, Ohio, patronize anything but an excellent restaurant?

Over a bottle of Didier's preferred French wine and generous portions of Georgian sea bass, there was much to reminisce about their early restaurant days when they introduced the European-style restaurant, ideally located between Toledo and Cleveland. As The Blade food editor at that time, I was anxious to report their accomplishments to readers.

"Remember the full dinner price was $7," Erwin said, referring to the first menu board. Yes, I remember, along with the choices that included Dover sole, Beef Wellington, and local walleye. Raspberries Romanoff was the signature dessert and the young men with European backgrounds encouraged customers to order wine of the proper variety with dinner.

Didier immigrated from France, and Erwin from Germany. They met in Chicago in 1966 when they were serving as captains; Erwin was at the Drake Hotel and Didier at the prestigious Maxim's.

"I looked like a penguin," Didier said of his Maxim's uniform as captain of the wait staff. He remembers that he had to deliver telephones to customers at their dining tables and suspected they had asked someone to make the call so they would appear important.

For their good fortune and also for northwest Ohio, they met the late Ted Wakefield, who convinced them that an old sail loft on the Vermilion River would make a charming restaurant and sponsored them in the venture.

Obviously he was right. Erwin, who had studied cooking in his native Nuremberg, was in charge of the kitchen, and Didier, who has a cooking certificate from a Parisian school, was the cordial front man in the dining room with the delightful French accent.

Erwin often had to put his professional training to use when the chefs they brought from Paris left in a huff. "You couldn't tell them anything," Erwin said. "They just took off their aprons and walked out. I had to take over."

LaBerge du Port was under full sail until 1982 when it was sold and Didier and Erwin headed south to enter another phase of the hospitality industry. They owned and operated the Southern Most Motel, the Colony Hotel, and LaMer in Key West for many years and still own a mobile home park.

Retirement is good. Didier and Erwin return to their roots in Paris and Germany each May and September and maintain a home in Nice. They also visit Switzerland annually. Whether they are at home or traveling, healthful eating and exercise are prime goals. The gardens and infinity pool at the stunning home on the intracoastal waterway which Erwin designed affords him plenty of exercise in addition to home gym equipment and bicycling. He still does the cooking--"otherwise he may fire me," and pulls fresh herbs from the garden for seasoning. Tarragon on yellow fin tuna is an example of flavor simplicity.

Didier's structured health regimen includes acupuncture to control cholesterol and 10-mile beach walks with a trainer three times a week.

Chez Francais, owned by John D'Amico and Matthew Mars since 1987, is in the former location of LaBerge du Port. The main dining room is currently closed but will reopen March 8. The bar, Touche, remains open Thursday-Saturday and serves light fare. As the name implies, French and continental cuisine are featured.

Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor.

Contact her at: mpowell@theblade.com.



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