But say you wanted to taste the soul of French cooking. Where would you go? Would you check your bank book, break into junior's college fund, and attempt to make reservations at one of the numerous houses of haute cuisine within the city? It would make sense. You're standing in the middle of flavor central. Paris is home to some of the world's most rapture-inducing restaurants; where taking a single bite of the complimentary bread will make your taste buds erupt with rapture as they give their lives to the cause. Better pray, then, that enough of those bumpy cells survive to see you through the aperitif, amuse bouche, and the glories that await you beyond. Small wonder. Here lies Alain Passard's L'Arpege, the fabulous Le Grand Vefour, Pierre Gagnaire, where the name says it all, and, carrying the refinement of centuries, La Tour d'Argent.
However, haute cuisine wouldn't be my choice. Nor, do I think, would it be the choice of any regular Parisian. Restaurants like those are places the average family saves up their money to go to a few times a year. They're not where the French go for comfort food during a normal day. They're not where I would go to savor the heart of France. No, my first choice would be the ubiquitous Parisian hole-in-the-wall diner; the bistros.
Bistros in Paris are strictly mom & pop affairs. Small cafes that can be found in every neighborhood, they serve affordable meals for the working class. In addition to simple, hearty soups, sandwiches, croissants, and coffee, each bistro will offer several specialty dishes, such as Coq au Vin, Poulet a l'Ail, Rouget a la Provencal, Steak au Pauvre, and Steak Frites, often rotating availability depending on the day and what's fresh in the market. For soul food, this is where the French go.
If you live in the States, finding places like these are difficult, to say the least. If you're not eyeing the few restaurants in your area attempting to peddle haute cuisine, you're braving the rash of pretentious chain cafes/boulangeries like Grain d'Or or *twitch* Panera that have fungally infested high-end shopping malls across the country. Luckily for me, there's a bistro a few blocks from my office where I can get a less-filtered taste of France. It’s called, amusingly enough, Taste of France.
Although family owned and operated, Taste of France is as unpretentious as a cafe can get and still exist in Orange County. Their menu says it all. Printed on simple white paper, the dine-in and take-out menus are one and the same. Look for dishes with French names and you'll only find two; the Croque Monsieur and the Croque Madame. Everything else is written in plain English.
Taste of France offers a number of baked goods and desserts, made off-site in a nearby bakery also owned by the same family. Most of their offerings are simple sandwiches containing meat and/or cheese, made using the large bread rolls from their bakery. They also offer quiche, crepes, and a few soups. There are three specials; Rotisserie Chicken, Tomato Wine Chicken, and Mustard chicken. Only one is available on any given day. The specials are classic French bistro dishes, but the owners haven't bothered to include the French names in the menu listings. At Taste of France, the focus is on comfort and flavor, not flash.
The restaurant’s decor has a quirky, neighborhood feel that walks the fine line between cute and kitsch. It's also unbelievably airy, surrounded by huge, floor-to-ceiling French doors opening out onto eaves-sheltered tables on two sides. The interior of the restaurant also conveys a sense of openness and space, with high, vaulted, open-beamed ceilings, large swaths of floor space, and close, intimate seating.
The service at Taste of France is friendly and informal. Walk into the restaurant through any of its many doors, and you'll doubtlessly be cheerfully greeted by someone behind the counter and told to sit anywhere you like. Within a few minutes, paper placemats, utensils, plastic cups of water, and printed paper menus will be delivered to your table by a t-shirt and jeans clad server. A few minutes later, and your server will be back to take your order, which won't take more that ten minutes to arrive at your table.
My first visit to Taste of France was three weeks ago with a few coworkers. We were looking for a place with have lunch when I recalled having seen this bistro on my way to work. We decided to try our luck.
I ordered the Rotisserie Chicken special, which arrived with half of a small, roasted chicken, a mound of parsley mashed potatoes wrapped in a crepe, a mixed greens and apple salad with a side of vinaigrette, and three slices of soft, white bread.
The chicken was spectacular. Perfectly seasoned, crusted with herbs, and roasted until tender and juicy, it practically fell apart when I applied my fork and melted in my mouth. It was obvious that the chicken had been reheated, since there was no way if could have been roasted in the amount of time between order and delivery. That was ok. Most specials at bistros are stewed and roasted items chosen for their reheatability so they can be prepared early in the day and served throughout. It comes with the territory. Nothing was lost in transition. The bonuses were the whole cloves of roasted garlic what came with the chicken. Soft and sweet, I spread them on the bread like butter. The taste was divine.
The parsley mashed potatoes were good, but not as impressive. They had the right flavor balance between butter, parsley, and salt, but mashed potatoes just don't reheat as well as roast chicken. I'm not a big crepe fan, so I decided not to burn the calories on the wrapper. The salad was nice and fresh. The tart sweetness of the apples paired very nicely with the vinaigrette.
I was so pleased with the food and the price point at Taste of France that I decided to take Cat out to lunch there the following week. Since we ordered the soup, they started us out with a basket of their sliced rolls. The crust was softer than I like it, but the crumb was very light and tender. It was classic pain de mie (sandwich bread), the ancestor of the mass-produced white bread so beloved by modern American children.
For her soup, Cat chose the Split Pea with Ham. Warm and unctuous, it was a little lighter in flavor than she was used to, but quite tasty. The salty bits of ham speckling the soup added a nice body.
I ordered my bistro favorite, the French Onion soup. Who could resist that Gruyere goodness? The soup was lighter in flavor than I was used to, but the more I ate, the more I liked it. The caramelized richness of the onion really shone through. Since my usual French Onion soup source was Claim Jumper, I wondered if this was closer to authentic French Onion soup than the flavor-blasted Claim Jumper version.
For her lunch plate, Cat ordered the Leek & Potato Quiche, which came with the standard parsley mashed potatoes and mixed greens and apple salad. I already covered the potatoes and salad above, but look at the size of that quiche. Cravery, eat your heart out.
The quiche was very good, with thin slices of potato and large pieces of buttery leek. The curd was flavorful and firm without being dry. The crust was tender and flaky, just the way I like it. Given how rich it was, Cat could only finish half of her quiche.
I ordered the Ham & Cheese Quiche, which was also quite good. Large chunks of ham, thinly sliced potato, and melted tendrils of some white cheese threaded their way through the savory curd. I also wasn't able to finish more that half of my quiche. The tartness of the apples and vinaigrette in the salad were essential to this plate, since they helped cut the richness of the quiche.
As we sat at our table outside, enjoying the mild summer breeze ruffling our hair and our placemats, I closed my eyes and felt the warm glow of Paris surround me. Cat's delicate hand was in mine. The muted babble of the conversation of our fellow diners, the rich, earthy tones of the late summer air, heralding the arrival of autumn, and the flavors of the hearty meal I'd just finished consuming flowed over, around, and through me, transporting me to gay Paris, where the heart and soul of the people can be tasted in its neighborhood bistros.
Taste of France - For homey French cooking at Huntington Beach prices. The food is ridiculously cheap, plentiful, and good. Order the quiche. At $1.50 less per plate than the Cravery for twice the amount of better tasting food, it's a bargain that can't be beat.
Bill (first visit, for one):
Rotisserie Chicken - 6.75
Tax - 0.53
Tip - 1.72
Total - 9.00
Bill (second visit, for two):
Split Pea with Ham Soup - 3.95
French Onion Soup - 3.95
Leek & Potato Quiche - 5.95
Ham & Cheese Quiche - 5.95
Diet Coke (w/refills) - 1.55
Diet Coke (w/refills) - 1.55
Tax - 1.78
Tip - 3.70
Total - 28.38
Taste of France
7304 Center Drive
Huntington Beach, CA 92647