State of the onion
“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.