New kid on the block
La Boulange, freshly acquired by Starbucks, joins the Palo Alto cafe scene
The $100 million baby has landed in downtown Palo Alto. Born in San Francisco in 1996, La Boulange was the brainchild of Pascal Rigo, a French-American restaurateur with an eye for both high-quality product and bottom-line results.
About a month after the Bay Area chain opened its outlet on University Avenue, Starbucks bought La Boulange — for enough money to keep a moderate-sized country in coffee and pastries for a year. Now, according to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, La Boulange products will be sold in Starbucks' thousands of stores.
Good for Starbucks and fabulous for the bakery. But what does it mean for us?
Well, excellent pastries, good soups and sandwiches and an inviting patio, for starters. Is this retail outlet different than other choices downtown? Yes and no, but I can attest to the superior quality of La Boulange's pastries. I've been a customer for years in its San Francisco shops and am extremely partial to its lemon bars ($3) and other delights.
La Boulange's European-styled pastries, not as unusual now as they were a decade ago, are crunchy, crispy, flaky, buttery and not overly sweet. There are savory tarts as well: cauliflower, vegetable, potato and onion, to name a few. The macarons, in an array of flavors, are melt-in-the-mouth delicious. Daily sweet pastries and desserts might include stone-fruit tarts, vanilla Napoleons and vanilla Tropezienne (creamy custard with vanilla bean and orange blossom extract.)
While pastry and tart selections migrate with the seasons, the menu board for salads and sandwiches remains fairly constant. Soup-and-salad combos are available for $7.50, and soup du jour and French onion soups are $3 per cup, $5 per bowl. Both the hot tomato and the cold creamy gazpacho were full-flavored and fresh-tasting on my recent visits.
The half-dozen salad options were priced $8 to $10 and came with house-made organic bread. I was slightly disappointed with the La Boulange salad ($8.50). It was one egg over not-so-easy, lardons, croutons and frisee. It's a variation of the classic salad Lyonnais. The overcooked egg was hidden at the bottom of the bowl, with no soft yolk to fork over the greens and croutons, and the lardons were scarce. In all, a salad that needs retooling, presentation-wise and quality-wise.
On the other hand, the Provencal BLT sandwich ($8.75) burst with flavor. The bacon, lettuce, tomato and goat cheese were housed between slices of toasted ciabatta that had been slathered with aioli.
The hearty, creamy mushroom-roasted-chicken open-faced sandwich ($9.25) included chives and caramelized onion in the mushroom sauce. It was filling with bold flavors, but reminded me more of an autumn dish than a summery one.
There were 15 warm sandwich choices, all of which came with a choice of greens, chips, quinoa salad or Boulange potatoes (strongly rosemary-flavored). There were cold sandwiches as well: including prosciutto and Swiss, goat cheese and tomato, and apple and brie.
There's a kids' menu as well as brunch, and beer and wine are now available. There is a lot going on in a small space.
The University Avenue location is not a bakery, though; it's an assembly outlet. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since the product is trucked down Highway 101 from South San Francisco daily. This allows for a greater selection of delicacies that wouldn't be feasible to manufacture in a prime location.
This spot at 150 University Ave. most recently housed Facebook. La Boulange has spiffed up the courtyard into an inviting street-side patio, partially shaded, with tables and awnings. There is comfortable indoor seating as well. In total, space for about 100 patrons at any time.
Currently, La Boulange serves the highly regarded Equator Coffees from San Rafael, but that's unlikely it will continue into the future. Starbucks, love it or not, says it plans to keep the La Boulange identity and, ideally, the very-high-quality products it manufactures. This will be a formidable problem as the scale of manufacturing balloons in the future.
Coffee/pastry/sandwich shops inspire fierce loyalty. The new kid on the block will attract its adherents. Without a big jump in our population, someone in the vicinity is bound to forfeit market share. We will watch the University Avenue corridor for developments. Good luck to all.
150 University Ave., Palo Alto
Hours: Daily 7 a.m.-7 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: city lots
Alcohol: beer and wine
Outdoor dining: yes
Private parties: no
Noise level: low
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent