by Karen Dachey
The mere mention of Provence is enough to make food lovers salivate at the thought of southeastern France's culinary cornucopia: its lush fruits and vegetables, its aromatic plants and fragrant herbs, and its abundance of Mediterranean seafood. Unfortunately, the closest many of us can get to Provence is the pages of a sumptuously photographed cookbook or a Peter Mayle paperback. We might wish for more Provencal-style eateries here at home (coastal California bearing more than a passing resemblance to the maritime region in terms of climate and plentiful produce), but that suffix "style" is a problem. One thinks with dread of Disneyland dinkiness: walls strung with garlic, canned California olives on the pissaladiere, regrettably inappropriate chansons on the stereo, and wines representing the region's least "amusing" appellations ("tarpaulin edged with lace," in wine expert Paul Johnson's memorable phrase).
Fear not, gentle Francophile. Since last October, Palo Alto's California Avenue has been blessed with Cafe Brioche, a charming little place that will impress even those fortunate enough to clock up frequent flyer miles between here and Nice.
The sole drawback is its popularity. If you're unaccustomed to eating lunch before noon or dinner before 7 p.m., be sure to make a reservation.
Three sidewalk tables front the restaurant, but the interior's skylights, shade umbrellas, potted plants, pale green decor and flagstoned floor give the entire 40-seat cafe an outdoorsy feel. Local artist Nicolai Larsen has painted the walls with a series of old-fashioned advertisements of the type found throughout southern France, and a large mirror hanging between two of them helps to open out the room, making it seem cozy rather than cramped.
Cafe Brioche is not doggedly provincial--its seasonally changing menus include one or two dishes from different parts of France and some minor borrowings from other European countries--but (and this is a unique drawing point) its sensibilities are truly Provencal. If tomatoes, say, are out of season you might come across a juicy little cherry one as garnish, but your impeccably fresh mesclun salad will be unmarred by the unripe pulp of imported billiard balls.
My lunch one day consisted of such a salad, the peppery greens lightly dressed with a fruity olive oil vinaigrette, served alongside a nicely browned focaccia sandwich ($7.25). Spread with deep-flavored sundried tomato pesto, the onion-dimpled bread was filled with colorful strata of marinated red bell pepper and paper-thin slices of grilled zucchini and eggplant, fennel having been omitted on request. Swayed by the restaurant's name, my companion selected a $7.50 sandwich of warm brioche encasing sauteed red onions, roasted red bell pepper and grilled slices of chicken-apple sausage. The accompanying bean salad, chosen in preference to the mixed green or pasta salad options, combined tender white beans with onion, celery, carrot and diced radish. The deceptively simple concoction was flecked with parsley and herbes de Provence, sharpened with balsamic vinegar and made heady with garlic.
Lunch desserts include several tempting-sounding tarts ($3.75), but we opted for the chocolate mousse ($2.75) listed among the daily specials on the chalkboard above the bar. Our French waitress recommended this ambrosial sweet not by extolling its velvety smoothness and intense chocolate taste but simply by noting its properly French (as distinct from gelatin-adulterated American) preparation. Such succinct chauvinism, combined with affable professionalism, makes the service here as appealingly authentic as the food.
Dinnertime brings prettily patterned napery to the tables and heartier dishes to the menu. Space constraints allow me merely to sketch out some possibilities. Two appetizers we enjoyed (both priced at $6.25) were a grilled marinated portobello mushroom, its bosky, meaty flavor set off by a light drizzle of sage aioli, and a tasty, texturally interesting salad mix of soft butter lettuce leaves, roasted almonds, hearts of palm and red onion, topped with mandarin segments and dressed with a lemon thyme vinaigrette.
Those with robust appetites will relish the whole rack of lamb served with a pomegranate and rosemary sauce, pan-fried potatoes and sweet baby carrots ($17.25). My guest, familiar with the strong flavor of wild rabbit, was impressed by the chef's treatment of the Sonoma farm-bred version: plump pieces of finely textured meat braised in a sauce sweetened with onion and fortified by Italian beer ($15.25). A few wedges of roasted potato was the only accompaniment this rustic dish required, although warmed Acme French bread was on hand to mop up the sturdy juices.
We finished with coffee creme brulee, savoring both the brittle caramelized topping and the silky custard beneath. The cafe's wine list has been compiled with a healthy respect for Californian as well as French bottlings, and throughout our dinner we enjoyed a 1994 Dry Creek Fume Blanc ($20).
"Provence!" exclaims Prosper Montagne, beginning the relevant entry in "Larousse Gastronomique." "Word evocative of sunshine, of exuberance, of the joy of good living."
I am delighted that in Cafe Brioche, with its honest, lively cooking, we have at last a little pocket of Provence right here in Palo Alto.
Cafe Brioche, 445 California Ave., Palo Alto, 326-8640
Hours: Lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-3 p.m., brunch Saturday 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner Wednesday-Saturday 5:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m.
Atmosphere: Captures the sunny charm of southern France
Highlights: Consistently professional service; expert use of local ingredients to recreate the lively, direct flavors of Provence; vegetarian specials on request
About the owners: Cafe Brioche, opened last October, is the fourth restaurant Bernard and Joanie Cartal have owned. After marrying 18 years ago, they ran a diner in Woodside, then opened The Pirates in Los Altos. In 1988, they started up Joanie's Cafe in Palo Alto, which they still operate next door to Cafe Brioche. Were it not for red tape, the couple would be using the site next door to Joanie's as an extension of that traditional American restaurant. But bureaucratic regulations prompted an entirely new venture, and in planning it they drew upon their French connections. Bernard, 42, comes from Provence, and Joanie, a native Palo Altan, has made extended visits to the region. At lunch she works in Cafe Brioche's kitchen with two other chefs. Since February, dinner has been the preserve of Paris-born Christian Vanclef, a 28-year-old graduate of the California Culinary Academy whose professional experience includes periods at the Stanford Park Hotel and La Pastiaia. Chef Vanclef credits the late Thomas McCrombie of Chez TJ, where he spent 2 1/2 years as sous chef, as one of his greatest mentors.
credit cards yes
Wine and beer only yes
wheelchair access: yes
non smoking: yes
outdoor seating: yes
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