A&E

Restaurant review: When in France ...

A mainstay for decades, Cafe Brioche continues to deliver

California Avenue in Palo Alto is not quite the Rue de Buci in Paris, but it is inching in that direction.

Not every restaurant has yet taken advantage of the city's newly completed sidewalk widening and beautification project. It's a unique opportunity for restaurateurs to supplement their interior space with al fresco dining, and with minimal investment. It's getting there: Joanie's Cafe, Pastis, Cafe Brioche and others have installed new outdoor tables, umbrellas and awnings. Some have added new signage to accent the fresh vibe on the street.

According to Marco Kurt, Cafe Brioche's general manager, the upgrade is bringing in new customers from further distances. California Avenue's eateries are segueing from neighborhood dining spots to destination restaurants.

What has also helped Cafe Brioche, Kurt said, is adding a full bar to complement their wine list and joining OpenTable's online reservation system.

The bistro has been an anchor on California Avenue since 1995, despite the decline of French eateries in the Bay Area over the past two decades. Happily, there is a spate of new French restaurants and bistros springing up around the region.

Cafe Brioche has remained because the food is uncomplicated and well-prepared by chef Ricardo Molina, prices are rational, the service competent and the dining room cozy. It has been a winning formula.

While I enjoyed dining with a partner, I equally enjoyed eating alone at lunch. Being free of conversation allowed my mind to wander and let me people-watch -- which is half the charm of any French bistro, whether in Paris or Palo Alto.

The first course of fried Brussels sprouts ($9.95) arrived tossed with cashews, chopped parsley and dabbed with an apple glaze. Paired with a sip of icy rosé, what could be more idyllic for a midday repast?

The lunch menu was sandwich-centric but did offer a few main courses as well. Nonetheless, I couldn't resist the huîtres (oyster) sandwich ($12.75). It came not with Arcachon oysters, nor even Tomales Bay bivalves; yet the single, fat, Washington State cornmeal-crusted sautéed oyster was scrumptious, topped with pancetta, red onions, baby spinach and creamy Dijon mustard and served on toasted sour bâtard bread. The oyster was fried golden and stayed crisp to the last bite.

Fried calamari is my litmus test to gauge the competence of a kitchen. Fail that, and the rest of the meal usually falls short as well. At dinner, the deep-fried calamari ($11.95) with lemon aioli was perfect: crisp and fresh-tasting -- not greasy -- with a shaving of Parmesan cheese atop.

The doughy beignet frit ($9.95) -- three fried brioche balls filled with chopped artichoke hearts, shallots and goat cheese -- came with a refreshing lemon-aioli dipping sauce.

Hazelnut-crusted salmon ($21.95) with a merlot-blackberry puree was served over a bed of sautéed spinach and roasted leeks. The flavors were well-balanced and the salmon was fresh, pink and luscious.

Coq au vin ($19.50) was better than I expected. I'm not a huge fan, but Cafe Brioche's was worthwhile. The marinated chicken was plump and juicy; the mushrooms, carrots, cipollini onions and whipped potatoes added a rustic savoriness; and the sauce was thick and fragrant.

Duck ragout ($24.95), mixed with pasta shells and gremolata (a citrus-and-herb condiment), was earthy and fragrant. The duck had been browned and roasted with wine, stock and vegetables, then deboned and simmered like a stew until thick. The results were mouthwatering.

For dessert, the house-made profiteroles ($7.50) were hard to beat. The pastry was puffy and feather-light, overfilled with vanilla bean ice cream and drizzled with chocolate fudge.

Cafe Brioche's version of tarte Tartin (7.50) was up to the task. The warm upside-down caramelized apple cinnamon tart was crowned with vanilla bean ice cream. The best part? It wasn't overly sweet.

The crème brûlée ($7.50) was satisfactory. Served in a small ceramic dish, the custard was a tad grainy yet flavorful. The thin, burnt sugar cap had been torched to order, so it was served slightly warm.

The wine list, divided into Old World and New World selections, was more than adequate and paired well with the cuisine.

Cafe Brioche is a bistro both Francophiles and non-Francophiles can enjoy. Food, service and ambiance are first-rate, and now there's the added attraction of people-watching.

Cafe Brioche

445 S. California Ave., Palo Alto

650-326-8640

cafebrioche-paloalto.com

Hours:

Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Dinner: Monday-Saturday, 5-9:30 p.m.; Sunday: 5-9 p.m.

Breakfast: Friday only, 9-11 a.m.

Brunch: Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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