Cafe Soleil

Flavor: Creperie/bistro with international flair
Ambiance: Ranges from relaxing to lively
Service: Friendly but sometimes spotty

There’s something truly special about the atmosphere at Café Soleil, a cozy creperie on Lexington Avenue. Some evenings, the bar is packed with customers, including a lot of food-industry folks, and laughter and music seem to overflow the restaurant and spill out onto the sidewalk, enveloping passersby and drawing them inside.

The restaurant recently welcomed a new chef, so my Picky Companion and I were curious to see what, if anything, has changed there. On a recent evening, we ventured back to Café Soleil, where we were greeted warmly by our hostess/waitress. Though it was an unseasonably cool night, we chose to sit in the tiny patio in the back of the restaurant.

This outdoor seating area is more of an alley than anything else, but it is arranged and decorated in a manner that complements the space nicely. Between the twinkling lights that were hung about, the conversational hum of the small crowd sipping glasses of wine, and the warm glow from inside that bathed the bricks in golden light, it was easy to imagine that we had stepped into a small European bistro. The effect was relaxingly pleasant as we settled in and turned to the wine list and menu.

All of the wines Café Soleil offers are approachable in price; the most expensive bottle they sell hovers in the $50 range. We ordered glasses of Louis Martini Cabernet and Cantina Zaccagnini Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and contemplated our choice of comestibles.

I was happy to find that the menu still includes my favorite Café Soleil standbys, like the Salade La Gaudi, a simple salad of colorful fresh vegetables, greens, goat cheese and nuts, with the new addition of mandarin vinaigrette. The classic crepes still have a home at the restaurant, such as the La Forestiere with assorted mushrooms and Swiss cheese, and the La Pesto.

There are several significant changes, though, most notably the addition of several non-crepe items, including a bacon-wrapped, blue cheese-stuffed filet mignon served with goat cheese mashed potatoes, two risottos – one seafood and one vegetarian, and crab cakes with tamarind vinaigrette. There’s now also a sushi-grade tuna – which, I was glad to see, the chef had declined to roll in a crepe, since to do so would have seemed a bit forced. Instead, the $20 dish was served with green lentils, sautéed red peppers and spinach, and a raspberry/red wine glaze.

Many of the menu items seemed to be slightly overwhelming in the dairy department. For example, the brie and chive crepe sounded delicious, but, in my opinion, suffered from the addition of mozzarella. The $13 seafood crepe also sounded good, with its sauce béchamel over scallops, shrimp and asparagus; but again, the dish contained mozzarella.

The $10 quail appetizer, which the menu said was stuffed with cornbread and fresh herbs, intrigued me – mostly because I was curious to see how the chef would pull off the bitter-sounding accompaniments of pureed endive and cranberry sauce. We also ordered the tried-and-true combination of smoked trout, potato cake and goat cheese, served with bacon, spinach and a balsamic/lime vinaigrette.

The quail was delicious, though it barely resembled its description, save the fact that the diminutive game bird was indeed on the plate. The meat was stuffed with a spicy and savory mixture – but it wasn’t cornbread and fresh herbs. In fact, it seemed to be some kind of seafood mixed with goat cheese; and the dish was served with a raspberry sauce.

We asked our waitress what it was exactly that we were eating, and speculated that we might have the wrong menus, but this was not the case. The chef had “decided to change [the dish],” she said, and the quail was in fact stuffed with crab.

I found the dish both tasty and much more appropriate for the season than the version on the menu – and fortunately, I’m not allergic to shellfish. But what if I was? (Roughly 2 percent of Americans are allergic to shellfish, according to a 2004 medical study.) Or what if I was on a kosher diet, which forbids eating shellfish? In any case, it would have been good to alert diners to the dish’s crab content in advance.

The trout appetizer, for its part, was quite well-received at our table. The spinach was very fresh and delicately dressed, the goat cheese tasted excellent, and the potato cake was not the typical cousin of a hash-brown patty but a delicate, well-seasoned variation of Pommes Anna. Picky thought that the bacon, when combined with the briny trout and cheese, took the dish a bit over the top in terms of its saltiness, but I found it just right.

Next, we ordered the La Stroganoff Crepe, a variation of the classic dish of beef, sour cream and mushrooms served over noodles or rice. This variation was served, obviously, in a crepe, but with the addition of Swiss cheese. The beef was quite tender, but its flavor was nearly undetectable through the curtain of dairy- and dill-laced wine sauce, pungent cheese and nearly a quarter cup of sour cream.

We were a bit full after all of the dairy in our courses, but nevertheless, we wanted some dessert. The restaurant serves a wide variety of sweet crepes, such as a house-made Dulce de Leche crepe, served with or without the addition of rum, and the La Noisette, a creation filled with Nutella and Frangelico. We opted for the latter one, and the combination was delicious (how could you go wrong?), especially with a froth of freshly whipped cream on the top. I would have preferred that the dessert not be served open-faced, as it was a bit messy, but a few extra napkins took care of that. Picky remarked that, at $8, the crepe was a little pricey, but Frangelico is a fairly expensive liqueur, and the cost more than likely reflected this.

Now quite full, we paid and left, picking up a brunch menu on our way out. The menu, which is served on Saturday and Sunday mornings, looked quite inviting.

With its live music, warm staff, notable drink menu and entertainments including salsa dancing on Tuesdays, Café Soleil offers up some wonderful, vibrant experiences – especially late-night. Those experiences are all the better when the food is as consistent as the atmosphere.

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