State of the onion

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Lau­rel Glad­den

“Where is the French Pas­try Shop?” a friend texted while I sat by the win­dow sip­ping a café au lait. “In La Fonda, on San Francisco Street,” I told her, to which she replied, “Oh, that’s still open? I didn’t know!” Santa Fe has plenty of places like this — ones that serve very good food and that of­fer fast, mostly friendly ser­vice but that lo­cals avoid or for­get about be­cause they’ve re­lin­quished them to the throngs of tourists.

Sure, some­times you can spot The French Pas­try Shop and Crêperie from a dis­tance be­cause of the gag­gle of outof-town­ers clus­tered around the door, but don’t let that de­ter you. Do make sure you have plenty of cash in your wal­let — checks and credit cards aren’t ac­cepted, and oddly, the menu doesn’t list prices. Step in off the street, and if you’re not dis­tracted by the art­ful pas­tries — ev­ery­thing from crois­sants and éclairs to Napoleons, opera tortes, and col­or­ful, fruit-based good­ies — choose a seat at one of the sturdy, richly stained wood din­ing ta­bles. Pause and gig­gle at the whim­si­cal an­i­mal-shaped breads — frogs and al­li­ga­tors, among oth­ers — in a third dis­play case.

Almost as soon as you’ve set­tled in, a server will swoop in to greet you and set the ta­ble. The util­i­tar­ian flat­ware, un­der­sized pa­per nap­kins, and cafe­te­ria-style plas­tic cups are a lit­tle off-putting, but this is a ca­sual café and pas­try shop, not Taillevent. Any­way, you should be re­lax­ing and en­joy­ing the cozy in­te­rior. With its dark bricks, rus­tic wood­work, vin­tage fire­place (it looks like it was once used for cook­ing), and cop­per-cook­ware ac­cents, the aes­thetic feels like French coun­try kitchen — even akin to one of those “his­tor­i­cally ac­cu­rate” tav­erns you find in places like Colo­nial Wil­liams­burg.

In th­ese chilly months, it’s hard not to start off with a hot, frothy café au lait, es­pe­cially if you’re eat­ing pas­try. The palmier (known in some cir­cles as an ele­phant ear) is a tiny bit crunchy, the flaky pas­try coated in a de­light­fully sticky glaze with a hon­eyed sweet­ness. In the pain au choco­late, airy and lightly sweet lam­i­nated pas­try swad­dles bars of deeply dark choco­late.

Half the menu here is ded­i­cated to sweet and sa­vory crêpes — fill­ings of meats, cheeses, fruits, and the clas­sic choco­late­hazel­nut Nutella spread. I try to con­vince my­self that it’s nu­tri­tion­ally vir­tu­ous to or­der a crêpe filled with a puree of deep-green spinach and nutty melted cheese, though I should prob­a­bly stop kid­ding my­self and just en­joy it for what it is. The egg, green chile, and cheese crêpe is a new ad­di­tion (it’s not of­fi­cially on the menu yet but is ad­ver­tised on signs in the café). It’s ba­si­cally a Frenchi­fied break­fast que­sadilla that’s a bit juicy and stud­ded with aro­matic chile — though you shouldn’t ex­pect any spici­ness from it.

The croque madame is not a sand­wich for the faint of heart — ham, cheese, and bread en­cased in a layer of béchamel and topped with a sun­shiney-golden over-easy egg. It’s a filling thing to tackle in the mid­dle of the day, but it can fuel you for the du­ra­tion. The French grilled cheese sand­wich is a bit lighter — Swiss, toma­toes, and black olives on a sec­tion of baguette slightly crisped on the grid­dle. My main beef is with the olives, which are bland and tinny rather than pun­gent and briny.

Those olives show up again on the Niçoise salad, which is oth­er­wise nearly per­fect: fresh mixed greens, fan­tas­ti­cally fishy tuna (not a seared steak but the oily canned or jarred sort popular in Europe), per­fect hard-cooked eggs with brightyel­low yolks, tomato wedges, boiled pota­toes, and an en­tic­ing dress­ing with aioli’s con­sis­tency and Di­jon mus­tard’s tang.

The French Pas­try Shop serves a num­ber of quiches, in­clud­ing the clas­sic Lor­raine. Our slice was more than gen­er­ous — it looked like a quar­ter of the whole tart. The crust was but­tery and flaky but nec­es­sar­ily sturdy, and the fluffy, eggy filling was spot­ted with salty ham. Ev­ery­thing that should be hot here ar­rives pip­ing and steam­ing — they must have a killer sala­man­der and a high-pow­ered mi­crowave in that kitchen.

Be­neath a gen­er­ous top­coat of near-molten cheese and the req­ui­site stra­tum of bread is onion soup with a dizzy­ingly rich and salty brown broth and onions that have been cooked just to the point be­fore they dis­solve com­pletely. The whole thing has a deeply sat­is­fy­ing umami qual­ity. Thank­fully, the kitchen gives you a few ex­tra hunks of baguette: Trust me, you’ll want them to dunk in that broth. I’ve eaten French onion soup on both sides of the At­lantic, and this some of the best I’ve ever had — with­out even hav­ing to leave town to get it.

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