Flavor: French baked goods and light fare
Ambiance: Bright and cheery
Service: Congenial, if sometimes overwhelmed
On a recent Sunday, I decided brunch would be best served in Paris. Feeling slightly askew from Bele Chere’s mild debauchery (and reluctant to revisit the scene of the crime), I headed down to the Paris Bakery and Café. The quaint little spot, which occupies the former Kim’s Oriental Grocery space on Merrimon Avenue, has the benefit of sometimes feeling miles away from Asheville, despite the fact that it lies well within city limits.
The place was packed, so my Picky Companion and I retired to the “outdoor seating area” with two cups of steaming coffee to wait for our table. Whether or not the area is used for frequent outdoor dining is subject to debate, as various and sundry brightly colored lichens, mushrooms and other harmless fungi sprouted gaily from the cracks and the sides of the picnic tables – but it’s a nice enough place to sit.
I spent the wait pestering Picky to keep an eye on the interior of the restaurant to ensure that no new arrivals would snag our table, but he was sure that the staff would be on top of it. They were not, and a scene of Seinfeldesque absurdity ensued.
We could see it all unfolding silently through the window: The waitress cleared the table slowly, chatting with the couple that was (unwittingly) about to seize what was rightfully ours, and we hurried for the door. In my haste, I tripped and went flying, landing on my stomach with an oomph while the dining room looked on through the huge windows that front the restaurant. Though my companion turned around to help me up from my prone position on the pavement, prompted by my hunger, I urged him on: “Go ahead! Save the table! Don’t worry about me!”
He was successful, thanks to the understanding couple who ceded without a fight. I hobbled in shortly thereafter, knees and ego a bit worse for the wear, and calmly ordered myself a cappuccino, chalking the whole thing up to insufficient caffeine.
Perusing the Paris Bakery’s menu, it became obvious that this is not the place for the fat-fearful or the carbophobic. Croissants abound, stuffed with cheese, eggs or ham for breakfast, and chicken, tuna salad or turkey for lunch. Beignets, often called French doughnuts by folks in the Big Easy, are served with café au lait (though sadly, they were out of the little fritters when I requested them), and the display cases are stuffed full of house-baked breads, éclairs, Danishes, cream puffs, tarts and all manner of tempting treats.
I opted for the plat du jour, a white-asparagus and blue-cheese quiche, served with a cup of homemade tomato soup, a salad and three little rolls – a decent deal at $7.25. Picky chose one of the fresh, buttery house-made croissants stuffed with egg. After what felt like an interminably long time, both arrived garnished with thin slices of lusciously ripe cantaloupe and ruby-red Roma tomatoes. The pastry crust that the fluffy quiche filling was couched upon was flaky and buttery, and the filling itself was well-balanced in flavor, very moist and delicious. The salad that accompanied it – fresh, emerald green romaine dressed with a basic vinaigrette – was simple and good, a theme that recurs throughout the menu.
“Simple and good” perfectly described the croissants when stuffed with any filling we chose. Despite a (more than likely) fairly whopping amount of butterfat, the pastries stay light and conspicuously ungreasy. My companion, in fact, described his Club Croissant as “delightful” on a subsequent visit. “It’s everything it needs to be: [It has] butterfat, ham fat, egg fat, cheese fat … .”
Though I was initially a bit weary of it, the Pâté Maison was great, though not precisely what I think of when I hear the word “pâté.” The texture and flavor were somewhat reminiscent of a good homemade sausage. The pâté was served with a crusty roll, some lettuce, slices of tomato, cornichons, a healthy dollop of Dijon and some more ripe melon. It was a good hearty meal, but in my opinion, it begged for a hunk of stinky cheese (especially since it made me think of a Ploughman’s Lunch), so I wrapped it up and took it home where I could slap the whole mess on some warmed bread and liberally apply some Point Reyes “Original Blue.” Perfect.
Though the breakfast/lunch fare is good enough, the true stars of the Paris Bakery and Café are, as the establishment’s name implies, the baked goods. Most of the pastries are traditional favorites, like elephant ears, éclairs, and opera cakes. There is a cute little play on chocolate mousse – a chocolate mouse filled with mousse and decorated with icing whiskers and little red eyes. (My mouse was so cute that it sat in the refrigerator for a day or two before I had the heart to just go ahead and bite its damn head off.)
The Sacher Torte is delicious, if not exactly traditional, with its raspberry filling in lieu of apricot jam (I much prefer the raspberries). There are beautiful fruit tartlets, tiny Key lime pies, cheesecakes, rum baba; it’s sweet-tooth heaven. Everything is light – as in the texture, not the caloric content. (I prefer my chocolate mousse a bit more dense, but plenty prefer the airier approach.)
Customers can also find bakery goods of a more savory sort, like French baguettes, artisanal breads and the aforementioned croissants.
How does all of this get made? According to Pierre Lestieux, who owns and manages the café along with his wife Martha, it means sacrificing sleep. Asked what time he wakes up in the morning, Pierre, who has more than 20 years of experience baking pastries in France, is slightly ambiguous.
“Whenever I wake up,” he says. “2, 2:30.” And generally, he adds, he doesn’t retire until 10 p.m., so that’s not a lot of time for shuteye.
It’s a worthy sacrifice, however, as all of the baked goods that I sampled were delicious. With croissant and a café au lait in hand, and the French music playing softly, you just might be able to pretend you’re in Paris – if you can tune out the noisy Americans. Oh, and watch your step.