If you ever went to Saint-Germain, the tiny and delicious French place in Madison Valley, then going to La Côte, its successor in that tiny space, is strange. Saint-Germain served open-faced sandwiches called tartines, the same uncomplicated menu at lunch and dinner; La Côte serves crepes, ditto. Wines by the glass are still on a chalkboard list, sans vintner or vintage (the implication being the French know what's good for you, then, now, and always). The interior is exactly the same—or is it? It still looks airlifted from Paris, with its French-blue-and-cream color scheme, woven cafe chairs, little marble tables. But was that bigger chalkboard with the menu in cursive there before? Was that one wall going down the hall painted all stripy like that? It's a disconcerting kind of déjà vu, one where just a few uncertain things have been changed on you.
One thing that's missing to be sure: the accordion that used to await deployment by Jean-Michel Omnès, the heart of Saint- Germain, who's decamped back to Europe. Without Omnès, the room lacks energy. Besides playing the accordion, he liked to make sweeping statements, talk politics and/or philosophy, be contentious and/or charming. (Note to the commenter on The Stranger's blog who called Omnès "a cartoon" who "hit on" his wife: Your wife is trying to tell you something.) La Côte is run by Laurent Gabrel, who owns the space as well as Voilà! Bistrot a few doors down. Gabrel is the chef at Voilà!, where he's known for visiting the dining room and being all Frenchily charming, too, but he can't be in two (or is that three?) places at once. During a lull at La Côte one recent afternoon, two servers in their stripy French boatneck shirts (which are new) stood in the corner, stifling yawns.
Then again, one night recently, an impossibly French couple sat in a corner, just like in the Saint-Germain days, if not more so—they were like actors hired to portray French people. One of them actually said "le sex symbol." Another highly stylish woman casually read a phone-book-thick French Bazaar. The server was weirdly exactly like the server on my first visit to Saint-Germain: very pleasant, all-American, and clueless about the food (the charcuterie plate consisted of "imported meats, an Italian deli ham, a pâté"). But—just like before—it didn't matter in the end, because the food was so nice.
The savory crepes here are made with buckwheat flour, in the style of the region of Brittany. (I believe these are only available elsewhere in town at La Crêperie Voilà, a walk-up stand at the Convention Center unrelated to the Voilà! Bistrot). La Côte makes them right. If you're not already partial to these rich, brown lovelies, prepare to become so: Savory fillings and flavors just make so much more sense with the buckwheat taste and texture. Each crepe is an improbable conflation of thinness and substantiality, with hot, fast cooking creating hundreds (thousands?) of millimeter-sized popped bubbles on the surface. La Côte's buckwheat crepes, as they should, stay remarkably crisp and simultaneously, paradoxically tender. And their mottled dark tan and chestnut coloring looks really good with La Côte's toasty-colored marble tables.
The best savory crepe here might be L'Alpine ($11), with tender pieces of Yukon potato, chunks of thick but ungreasy bacon, onion, and the melty goodness of Fleur des Alpes cheese enveloped inside, then a little crème fraîche in a plaid pattern on top. While La Côte's crepes are daunting in portion, you'd never get tired of this one. Still, it's more fun to go halvesies, maybe with someone eating La Côte ($9), billed as shrimp and seafood sauce but with secret scallops, too. The sauce is light, unthick, black-peppery but subtle; the whole thing tastes fresh, not fishy, like the smell of the sea instead of a mouthful of seawater. Another splendid, hearty, simple one is the traditional La Complète ($9), ham and Emmental with a runny egg on top. It's absolutely overkill, but try adding mushroom sauce (for $1). La Fermière ($11) pairs mushroom sauce with white cubes of chicken breast, where a little rich, dark meat would not be amiss.
La Côte's sweet crepes are of the lighter, more elastic, white-flour variety, and they, too, are authentically delicious. La Belle Helene ($8) is stuffed with big, happy lumps of vanilla ice cream and poached pear, and there's chocolate sauce in there, too. Eat the whole thing at your own risk. La Tatin ($7) is slightly more humane and just as good, with sweet/tart apple slices caramelized to a plum color and plummy, rummy flavor, Chantilly on the side. For Reese's lovers: L'Americaine ($7), with peanut butter and chocolate spread inside together. Sadly, a beloved standby, La Citronnée ($5), did not have enough lemon and was gritty with sugar.
For before or between or after or instead, salads are refreshing: La Verte ($6) and La Mer ($11, with tender shrimp and scallops making up for waterlogged green beans). The onion soup ($7) is incredible, with broth so super-oniony and rich and great, it's difficult to believe.
Also difficult to believe: that Saint-Germain is gone. But here is something also delicious—if not quite as unique, food- and soul-wise—in its stead. Bonne chance, everyone.