We have so much to talk about when it comes to France.
We can talk about Bastille Day, celebrating the day the French people thumbed their noses at the monarchy in 1789 by storming a medieval prison with populist indignation and, we're guessing, fusillades of day-old bread. That's July 14, this Wednesday.
We can talk about bicycling through the sunflowered fields of the Tour de France, the premiere event in a sport we love passionately then drop like a summer fling the minute Lance Armstrong's out of the picture. That runs through July 25.
Or we can talk about the World Cup. That was over on June 22. For France, anyway. (Better yet, let's not talk about that.)
Let's talk instead about French food in Austin, about how our options have expanded in the past few months to include Artisan Bistro in Lakeway and a bakery in Bee Cave called Baguette et Chocolat , both with roots in that other home of the red, white and blue.
Artisan Bistro would set Yelp on fire if it had the gentrifugal force of a central-city ZIP code instead of a suite at a boilerplate bourgeoisie strip mall in Lakeway.
Like Justine's on the East Side, it's run by a man with deep French roots and his American wife. Like Justine's, it leans on a tight repertoire of French classics: pâté, duck confit, escargots and other dishes that capitalize on the alchemy of fat, butter and garlic.
To take the game a notch higher, chef Cesidio d'Andrea is also a baker, and his bread basket has few equals: crusty baguette, textured multigrain, chewy ciabatta in plain and aggressive olive incarnations, accompanied by an olive tapenade more daring than any butter. The bread elevates every dish, justifying price points, satisfying 6-year-olds and septuagenarians alike.
D'Andrea operates the restaurant with his wife, Laureen Sicart, and Gloria Parker, a family friend who co-owned the former Vino 100 wine bar that operated in the same space. The wine list reflects Parker's touch. It's small but smart, crafted with the help of sommelier Mike Bryan.
D'Andrea and Sicart met in Paris when she was a hotel management intern at the Lancaster Hotel, where he was the chef. They've run cafes in Normandy and Paris, Sicart said, but when she got homesick for the States, the couple chose Lakeway. Why Lakeway? Being a native New Yorker, Sicart said, she was reluctant at first to consider Texas, even after a questionnaire on the website for Sperling's Best Places (www.bestplaces.net ) kept coming up with Austin. But they took the chance. 'We live our lives that way, wherever we spin the globe,' she said. Their son, Giovanni, just graduated from Lake Travis High School.
Artisan Bistro is an intimate operation, with 54 seats, wood floors, a metal-topped bar and a back wall filled with wine displays. Loaves of bread lie in baskets for sale by the front window next to displays of croissants (so flaky and rich for just $2), pastries and French macarons . It's not the most elegantly organized space, and the open kitchen means you're never far from the sounds, sights and smells of dinner, which d'Andrea cooks in a solo ballet of focused energy.
On one night, we shared the place with what might have been a bachelorette party or a convention of Robert Palmer girls with updated couture. Whatever the case, it was an astonishing feat for d'Andrea to keep food flowing to the flotilla of tables around the Good Ship Sex and the City. We reveled in housemade pâté, rich and grainy with sweet onion marmalade ($8). A cauldron of French onion soup ($8) carried the sour tang of onion, the deep richness of beef stock and elastic laces of cheese without the salt that so often drowns out this simple pleasure.
Simplicity also reigned in the beef bourguignon ($16), chunks of meat in hearty brown broth, a stew served with another kind of stew - ratatouille - this one with the mellow sweetness of onion and tomato and the unmistakable pliancy and back-note sour edge of eggplant, a meal unto itself.
You can choose other sides with the duck confit ($18), but the small, waxy flageolet beans in a light garlic cream make the perfect companion for the unapologetically country-style duck, all rangy dark meat with crisp skin. Nothing delicate here, something to attack with your bare hands and a crust of bread after the knife and fork have taken their polite measure.
As much as I loved the simple, olive-flecked elán of tapenade butter on a piece of salmon ($15) cooked to a perfect flaked sunrise of blushed pinks and rosy reds, I couldn't get past the product itself, suffering from the dockside malaise of fish just past its prime. It was my only significant disagreement with the food.
At lunch, my daughter tore with joy into bouchées à la reine ($12), a stripped-down potpie, like a flaky peasant biscuit with tender cubes of chicken, briny mushrooms (I was assured they were fresh) and cream sauce served with a salad of frisée and greens dressed in a simple vinaigrette.
Back to those macarons (really, that's how they're spelled). I can finish a dinner almost anywhere with lava cake or an apple tart, and they're on the menu here. But French-style macarons are a rare find, like brush-and-palette Nilla wafers, rendered in strawberry pink and pistachio chartreuse, little wisps of cream and crackle like independence fireworks, whether it's July Fourth or Fourteenth.
900 RM 620 S., Suite C107, Lakeway. 263-8728, www.artisanbistroaustin.com .
Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays. 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays. Note: The restaurant will be closed for vacation July 15-22.
Prices: Starters $8-$14. Soups and salads $8-$12. Main courses $15-$23. Desserts $8. Pastries start at $1. Lunch sandwiches $7.
Payment: All major cards
Alcohol: Beer and wine. The wine list is grouped first by style, then by region, with bottles from Argentina, Australia, California, France, Italy, Spain and others. Six sparklers ($28-$55), 20 whites ($24-$48) and 28 reds ($28-$95), with more than 20 by the glass ($6-$12). Two seasonal beers on tap, plus a handful of bottles, including lambic and saison.
Wheelchair access: Yes
Baguette et Chocolat
In the Bee Cave area, where H-E-B once held the dominant franchise on baked goods, there's a good chance now that if you send Dad out for doughnuts, he's likely to come back with cannolis, cream pie and croissants by way of Mandola's Italian Market, Bountiful Cafe and Bakery and now Baguette et Chocolat.
The new French bakery on Bee Cave Road is home to Chi-Minh Pham-Dinh , born and trained as a baker in France. His wife, Anne-Lise , takes orders in a lyrical French accent at the counter while he works his magic with dough in the back. The line sometimes snakes out the door at this small, bright shop with hand-chalked menu boards, and the bakery case clears out quickly on the weekends.
From that case comes a croissant spiraled with layers, flaked and buttery when it needs to be, perfectly chewy when the job calls for it. Yes, it's $2.39 for just one, but these aren't greasy fast-food imposters. If substance is more your thing, a magnificent baguette is only $1.99, crisp and crackly outside, woven like dense silk inside.
But a bakery is about indulgence, no? And we indulged in a croissant filled with sweet almond paste ($2.79), an elevated eclair with lush chocolate icing ($3.99) and flaky rolls hiding twin ingots of semisweet chocolate ($2.99). We scarfed down chouquettes , French pâtisserie versions of doughnut holes studded with sugar at three for a dollar.
Indulgence segued into decadence with a glazed chocolate shell filled with fluffy chocolate mousse called the Round Rock ($4.99) and a raspberry Charlotte, layered like a trifle with sweet cake and raspberry mousse ($4.29).
Indulgence isn't cheap. On one trip, my cute little box of five pastries and a chocolate mousse was $17. The shop also pours a mean cup of Lavazza drip coffee ($1.99) and rich hot chocolate ($3.49).
One could make the argument that this is a bakery first and a bistro second, but a menu packed with omelets, paninis, croissant sandwiches, quiches and more than 20 crêpes invites a higher standard of accountability, and the dishes I sampled need more time to develop.
A Campagnarde crêpe ($6.99) was supermodel thin and cooked a shade too toasty, filled almost imperceptibly with egg, mushroom, bacon and sour cream, and the crust on a dry quiche Florentine ($5.99) was leathery across the middle. They came to the table garnish-free on white plates, without the salad mentioned on the menu. I asked about that and was told they don't usually come with salads in the morning, but they quickly brought out a bowl of wilting iceberg lettuce, shredded carrots and a sour-sweet dressing.
I was fine with the 10-minute line to place my order and the interlude before for the food came out. But on two occasions here, I've been entertained by the impatience of the over-provisioned, by the few self-entitled clients who forget this is a maman-et-papa shop and rally the line for a sympathy huff. It's like Bizarro Bastille Day.
Relax, mon ami. When it comes to bread and chocolate, we're all on the same side.
Baguette et Chocolat
12101 RM 2244, Building 6, Bee Cave. 263-8388, www.baguetteetchocolat.com .
Rating: 6.2 out of 10
Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays. 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays.
Prices: Salads $6.99. Sandwiches $4.29-$6.99. Omelets and quiches $5.49-$6.49. Crêpes $3.49-$6.99. Breads, croissants and pastries $1-$4.99.
Payment: All major cards
Alcohol: None. Full line of Lavazza coffee drinks, high-end hot chocolate and frappés.
Wheelchair access: Yes
Seven more places for French food
French techniques weave their way through most any restaurant with a trained chef. But here are a handful of places I've reviewed or visited that specialize in the cuisine itself.
- Mike Sutter
Aquarelle. Small-house elegance with classic French service and cooking: pan-seared duck, soft-shell crab, snapper with potato brandade . 606 Rio Grande St. 479-8117, www.aquarellerestaurant.com . (Reviewed November 2008: )
Chez Nous. Classic French bistro with a casual elán, just off Sixth Street. A three-course 'Menu Du Jour' is a low-cost way to have trout with crabmeat, housemade pâté and a dessert course of brie with apples. 510 Neches St. 473-2413, www.cheznousaustin.com .
Fabi and Rosi. A diorama of well-cooked dishes from the European panoply: garlicky French escargot, crisp German pork schnitzel, Spanish paella interwoven with well-cooked ringlets of squid. Service was poor, and the little house was tropically hot. But those things come and go. Just as long as chef Wolfgang Murber stays. 509 Hearn St. 236-0642, www.fabiandrosi.com . (Reviewed July 2009: )
Flip Happy Crepes. The cool aunt of all mobile Austin crêpe operations isn't afraid to blast your fillings out with flavor, like with the garlicky kick of a crêpe stuffed with moist roasted chicken, goat cheese and sweet caramelized onions. Be prepared to wait. 401 Jessie St. 552-9034, www.fliphappycrepes.com . (Reviewed January 2009: 7.9 out of 10)
Justine's. When the steak frites, the Côtes du Rhône and the Delta blues hit just right, it's Paris on the East Side. The restored 1937 bungalow draws surplus hipsters late into the night for luscious steak tartare and housemade charcuterie, along with a wine list that's French, fun and cheap. 4710 E. Fifth St. 385-2900, www.justines1937.com . (Reviewed November 2009: 8.1 out of 10)
Le Café Crêpe . Yellow walls in this small bistro pulse with European advertising signs. Savory and sweet crêpes are made right at the counter, including La Fromagere with brie cheese and pears. 200 San Jacinto Blvd. 480-0084, www.cafecrepeofaustin.com .
Péché. A cocktail bar on a mission to rehabilitate gin, rye whiskey and absinthe, New Orleans-style. The menu changes with the market, but a French accent emerges in a crispy coq au vin riding a magic carpet of earthy mushroom bread pudding, along with textbook renderings of mussels with fries and a charcuterie plate that might include smoked duck, a rabbit rillette and duck liver mousse. 208 W. Fourth St. 495-9669, www.pecheaustin.com . (Reviewed May 2010: 7.9 out of 10)
Bastille Day restaurant events
• In Georgetown, La Maison chef-owner Françcois Oudom will celebrate early with a barbecue and pétanque party from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday . Festivities will include a tournament of the popular French ball game, plus Texas barbecue and French dishes (andouille sausage, quiche, pâté) for $5-$8, along with Côtes de Provence rosé wine for $2. Live music starts at 1 p.m. 204 E. Eighth St., Georgetown. 512-868-8885, www.lamaisontx.com .
• Aquarelle will host its annual Bastille Day Rosé Festival from 7 to 10 p.m. Wednesday . The restaurant will forgo regular service and instead offer an array of cold rosé wines for $6 per glass on the back patio. Festival-style foods such as steak-frites and caprese sandwiches and shrimp po' boys also will be $6. With live music from Waggs. 606 Rio Grande St. 479-8117, www.aquarellerestaurant.com .
• Justine's will host a 'Red, White and Blue Party' starting at 10 p.m. Wednesday , with music and food and wine specials. 710 E. Fifth St. 385-2900.