Let them eat baguettes
The truth is, I am not enamored with Paris. As much as I love stinky cheeses and tarte tatin, the romance of the French culinary gestalt doesn’t melt me the way it renders others worshipful. One thing I do love, however, is a great bistro.
The bistro is the perfect antidote to what some perceive as the fussiness and inaccessibility of classical French food. Good bistros are found at the crossroads of maximum coziness and minimal pretension, with hearty portions, bustling dining rooms, and people who understand when roast chicken beats a steak. What a good bistro may lack in refinement, it should make up for with robustness.
With Ze French Bistro, owners Stéphane and Vanessa Souquière and executive chef Laurent Rea (formerly of O’Keeffe Café) have devised their take on the hallmark dining establishment of their native land, and it now inhabits the former interior and dreamy street-front patio of Le Zodiac Café. Enthusiasts of Zodiac’s house bread— modeled after the classic poilâne loaf— will be happy to know that it’s still available as Ze’s house bread, along with Zodiac’s baguettes. Santa Fe, meet Ze: the raisin rolls, made on the premises, are better than the croissants, which aren’t made in-house. And the quiche Lorraine is the best thing happening to bacon and eggs within walking distance of the Plaza.
So, what is Ze, besides a monosyllabic moniker that’s just as bland as some other things about the place? Ze is a hybrid bistro-bakery-café that feels like an eerily efficient, European-roadside, familyfriendly eatery. Unfortunately for my beloved quiche Lorraine, most of the dining experiences at Ze just don’t measure up to that dish’s standards, leaving the prices looking uniformly inflated, the vast dining room feeling conspicuously vacant, and Rea’s extreme talent looking suspiciously absent. (The establishment just opened for dinner, so perhaps Rea’s skills will be put to better use.)
The Ze French Basket is composed of three bitesized pastries and a few slices of baguette and house bread. The baguette is inconsistent; perfect some days, inedible on others. My lunch of the Maghreb or “Moroccan” hot sandwich, for instance, whose delivery system was a rigor mortis-afflicted stub of bread, led to some improvisation. After teething at the bread like a frustrated infant, I gave up and ate the filling— a gorgeous tangle of spicy Merguez sausage slathered with harissa aioli, satiny grilled onions, and sweet bell pepper— with my salad. The first-rate croque monsieur, on the other hand, was tender, eggy bliss: soft bread battered crisply along the edges with golden Emmenthal cheese and ham swaddled in a silky béchamel sauce. French onion soup fiends might be disappointed by Ze’s curiously flat version; beneath its sexy, molten mantle, the broth bores.
The bite of buttered and sugared crepe I had was forgettable, but the savory buckwheat crepes, or galettes, were wonderful, though not particularly substantial. The Florentine galette, with sautéed spinach, goat cheese, grilled tomatoes, and a sunny side-up egg was gently restorative. But it was the forestière galette with sautéed mushrooms, egg, and béchamel sauce that truly captured my heart. I’ll be back for another.
The red fruits and rhubarb crumble was so nuclearhot that it melted the vanilla ice cream, and I savored every delicious bite. Slightly more adult was the Créole bread pudding, which was also very good, if a little austere; it had the texture of a fine, firm custard.
It is impossible to write about Ze without comparing it to its daytime competition, and that competition wins hands down. Ze is overpriced and service is an annoying liability. Its acoustics are undesirable. Ze, meet Santa Fe: a city that favors warmth and charm, even when it means crumbling stucco and shabby furniture. With an interior as cool, crisp, and collapsible as an IKEA model kitchen, Ze currently lacks that needed charm and warmth. Its price point combined with its proximity to one of downtown’s only budget lodgings could alienate hotel guests and leave locals hoping for something more.