Le Cafe de Paris was a warm refuge from the ice-slicked streets on a recent sunny Sunday morning. As my pal pulled open the door to the downtown French cafe, she smiled and said, "I always forget about this place for brunch." I nodded in agreement.
Apparently, we were in the minority. The small restaurant teemed with people, French toast and crepes flew from the kitchen hoisted above the heads of the all-female waitstaff. A line of hungry patrons nursed coffees by the door and watched for signs of movement from tables littered with empty mimosa glasses.
Eventually we were squeezed into a couple of stools at a bar counter, where I ordered a double latte ($3.90) served in a large, American-sized mug. The French Fines Herbes Omelette ($7.50) was a refreshingly modest affair, topped with a sparse sprinkle of chives and parsley, and a drizzle of creme fraiche. Though a traditional French omelette is a thin, eggy exercise in buttery simplicity, Le Cafe de Paris' version was cooked to a spongy American thickness and under-seasoned. A giant wedge of the quiche ($7.75), peppered with parsnips, broccoli and a vein of gruyere, boasted a thick, rich crust but also lacked flavor.
On a previous visit for dinner, my date and I were eager to try the cafe's recently revamped French bistro menu--filled with hearty classics like tarte Alsacienne, steak frites and duck confit.
Seated in a corner table at the much emptier restaurant, we sipped white bordeaux ($8) and waited for a French onion soup ($5) and a Lyonnaise salad topped with chicken liver, lardons and a poached egg ($9). We barely cracked the thick island of pre-sliced gruyere on the soup before our entree, Steak au Poivre ($19) was also squeezed onto the table. Crusted in cracked black peppercorns and drizzled with a green peppercorn sauce, the slightly overcooked Homestead Ranch NY strip was served with a smear of cold parsnip puree, a pile of haricot vert and a decorative green onion spear. Aside from the thin, flavorful green beans and the darkly caramelized onions in the soup, everything we had was good but lacked the seasoning and execution to make it great.
As our server cleared away our plates, she apologized for the meal's timing, explained that it was her first night serving dinner and offered a dessert on the house. As we chiseled hunks of dark chocolate and tufts of minty mousse off the delightfully subtle Casablanca ($5.50), smiles of satisfaction spread over our faces. It was, without a doubt, the best part of the meal.