BRANFORD – Born and raised in Toulouse, France, Christophe Santos spent decades developing his palate for French cuisine, leading to him opening his first restaurant in October – Otoulouse.
As the restaurant’s one-year anniversary approaches, Santos said he hopes it becomes a staple for Branford residents and a destination for people looking for fine French dining.
Located at the corner of East Main and Chestnut streets, Otoulouse sits behind a richly dressed garden and brick path. Flowering plants like hibiscus grow prominently.
“I always worked for somebody else, and we decided to try it for ourselves,” said Santos, who runs the restaurant with his wife, Rachelle. “We chose Branford because we live in Branford. We think it’s a nice town, and so far they’ve been treating us pretty well.”
Santos said food is the foundation of French culture.
“In France, both my grandmas were really good cooks,” he said. “My mom’s mother used to do a lot of catering, big meals for weddings. My mom, she’s a really good cook. My dad used to be a really good cook. It’s in our DNA. Even if you don’t cook, you live in it. In France, it’s the base of our society.”
After working his way through kitchens in France since age 16, Santos decided to take a chance on the United States. He moved to Connecticut in 2004 and got his first stateside job at Union League Cafe in New Haven. He then helped a friend open a restaurant in Boston in 2008 before returning to France in 2010.
Santos and his family returned to the U.S. in 2014, where he continued working in restaurants until deciding it was time to open a place of his own.
“I was in charge of a lot of things,” Santos said. “Over the years, first you learn the technique – how to handle knives, how to do different kinds of cuts, how to butcher meat, fish. Then you learn the other part, which is creating recipes, ordering, being in charge of all kinds of things. Once I felt like I could do it for myself, we decided to do it when I was feeling comfortable and capable.”
When discussing the possibility of opening a restaurant, Santos said he was more nervous about it than his wife.
“I don’t think she was nervous,” he said. “I think I was the one who was most nervous. I knew how hard it can be. Physically, mentally, it could be difficult.”
The menu at Otoulouse reflects Santos’ French roots, offering classic dishes like vol au vent d’escargot, and magret de canard à l’orange, ju corse – or duck à l’orange.
Some recipes at Otoulouse are also inspired by Santos’ mother.
“I stole a lot of recipes from my mom, and I use them every day to do what it is I want to do,” he said.
A popular dish at Otoulouse – and one of Santos’ favorites – is lamb shank.
“We cook it for about seven hours,” he said. “It takes time. Anything that takes time is always better. Patience is the key to success.”
Whenever possible, Santos said, he will source locally for his ingredients.
“We’re working on a tomato salad,” he said, which comes with manchego cheese and balsamic vinaigrette.
“I buy them from the Guilford Country Farms II,” he said of the tomatoes for the salad. “Corn, tomatoes, all kinds of vegetables. Anything I can find on the farm, I’ll buy some.”
One thing to notice on the menu, he said, is that the side dish for each entrée is never listed.
“I don’t write down what’s going to be served with it,” he said. “I can change the vegetables any time I want. Lately it’s sliced potatoes, basically like a gratin with no cream, just chicken stock and onion confit. It’s very nice.”
Along with local products, Santos said he likes to buy organic as well.
“We try to work with a really good product,” he said. “The cod is wild. The Scottish salmon is organic. The mussels are organic.”
Rachelle said her favorite dishes include the duck, the pan seared scallops and, on a cold day, the New York strip steak.
“The cream peppercorn sauce – it’s rich, but not heavy,” she said of the steak dish. “It goes along super well with the French fries.”
Like the rotating sides served with entrees, the menu changes regularly, so there are rarely specials on the menu.
“I’ve already changed the menu for the summer twice,” Santos said. “If I find something that I’m really interested in, I’ll run a special. Since we’re changing the menu often, you’ll get a new dish on the menu.”
For people looking to end their meal with a dessert, the chocolate mousse and flan au caramel are favorites, as well as a new dessert – peach melba.
“It’s poached peach in vanilla syrup and we serve it with vanilla ice cream, a little bit of chantilly and sliced almonds and berry sauce,” he said.
Santos said he’s working to make his customers as happy as possible.
“I really want to be open in the next 10 years,” he said.