Let them eat baguettes

Pasatiempo - - Res­tau­rant Re­view - Nouf Al-Qasimi For The New Mex­i­can

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.

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