We may be thousands of miles away from the Champs Élysées, but Seattle boasts an impressive échantillonnage of French restaurants and pâtisseries. From atmospheric Belltown favorite Le Pichet to Ballard haute cuisine temple Le Gourmand; from the lovely prix fixe at Campagne to Rover's, chef Thierry Rautureau's culinary mecca for local hardcore foodies, this town offers plenty of authentic, délicieux fare (and a few disappointments) for those of us who can't dash off to Paris every time we have a craving for coq au vin and ripe, stinky cheese. --M.L.
Madison Park Cafe
1807 42nd Ave E (Madison Park), 324-2626.
Though formal dining is fun because it's froufrou, informality provides a certain comfort--a confidence to go ahead and try some daunting dish you wouldn't order otherwise, for fear of sideways glances thrown by the server as your barely eaten entrée is returned to the kitchen. "What matters is that you are adventuresome enough to try new things," commented Karen Binder, owner of the Madison Park Cafe and our server for the night.
My dining partner and I hadn't been recovering vegetarians long enough to order chicken liver mousse ($6.25) with confidence, and though the chilled paste was perfectly set up in a tiny white ramekin surrounded by crisp crostini, fragrant picholine olives, snappy cornichons, and a dollop of Dijon, one bite was enough for each of us. Our onion soup gratinée ($5.95), on the other hand, had us engaged in a polite tug of war as we scooped melted Gruyère out of a steaming cup of tender onions and a boozy beef broth so rich that I blurted out a confession: Though I'd ostensibly sworn off beef for 14 years (having since come to my senses), I'd never been able to pass up a cup of French onion soup. Just tell yourself it's mushroom-based, and you're good to go.
As we waited for my coq au vin ($15.95) and his tenderloin of beef with red wine demi and bleu d'Aubergne ($22.95)--manly!--we traded juicy off-the-record gossip, and past drunken times were revisited. And wouldn't you like to know what was said? Sorry! The cafe's small tables, scattered about the first floor of someone's former home, are perfect for private head-to-head conversation.
My chicken arrived atop a bed of truffle mashed potatoes, all drenched in another delightfully boozy sauce, seasoned with plenty of marjoram (which I happen to love); my companion's generous cut of meat had a melt-in-your-mouth tenderness that Ruth's Chris Steak House wishes it could achieve. Dessert was a shared bowl of sorbet made of banana and toasted coconut, flavorful and light enough that we left smiling and contented. Satisfied, but not overfed--and no, you'll never know the rest. KATHLEEN WILSON
2359 10th Ave E (Capitol Hill), 329-0580.
After a somewhat spotty prior visit, I was mightily impressed with the fare at this mid- to highish-priced (dinner for four: $150, with only one $7 apéritif) Capitol Hill bistro. The service was considerate and well paced; despite the fact that our 9:00 p.m. reservation guaranteed our party to be the last patrons left in the place, we were never made to feel rushed.
After starting with a somewhat clunky pork and duck liver pâté ($8) wrapped in phyllo dough, we moved to the more beguiling appetizers. The duck consommé ($6), with four tender slices of just-this-side-of-raw duck breast, was just the right combination of bitter and savory. The crab salad ($10) offered up a curious combination of flavors, featuring papaya chunks, mango seeds, and an unusual dose of something fennelish. By contrast, the mussels marinière ($10) were classically simple--a heaping portion of bivalves bathed lightly in white wine and garlic.
On to the entrées, which left the starters in the dust. The pasta du jour ($19) featured a luscious, juicy steak of ahi tuna atop a bed of capellini, which had been tossed with baby artichokes, garlic, and red pepper flakes. With subtle hints of citrus and the tenderest texture imaginable, it was as fine a piece of fish as I've ever had the pleasure to swallow. The pasta itself was a bit of a letdown (a mite dry), but it's hard to imagine anything living up to that tuna. The house pasta ($18) also starred capellini, this time dressed in a cream sauce and dotted with fresh spinach and fat, juicy, seared shrimp. Nice one. Across the table, roasted duck ($23) was draped with asparagus--lovely to look at and a joy to steal bites of. Though the savory bread pudding it rested on certainly didn't hurt matters, the real genius of the plate was the tangerine demi-glace. Only the Monday-night special coq au vin ($18) failed to satisfy; the menu's descriptive buildup was perhaps more than the poultry deserved.
Though the dinner portions were generous, we couldn't resist the dessert menu. The Bombe Cassis ($7), a scoop of tangerine sherbet surrounded by chocolate ice cream and covered in a soft dark-chocolate shell, proved a minor disappointment. A much simpler cassis sorbet ($5)--sweet, tart, and beautiful deep crimson--more than compensated. SEAN NELSON
1933 First Ave (downtown), 256-1499.
The casual atmosphere at Le Pichet lends it a certain authenticity that other froufrou-leaning, French-inspired local restaurants lack. Everything is underway the moment you sit down (you are met with menus and a small plate of whatnot to whet your appetite--on a recent visit, slices of aged meat and sweet pear). Formal starters, too, emerge in no time at all, on little plates that belie each dish's sophistication. The simple, silky tomato soup ($8) is complemented, by way of contrast, with crisp polenta croutons. A purée of salt cod, garlic, and olive oil ($9), served bubbling hot in a cup that later doubles as the pot de crème dish, comes with grilled bread and a battalion of slick kalamata olives. But start with the salad of fresh green beans, black currants, and diced almonds ($8), generously topped with soft, savory cubes of perfectly textured pork confit and dressed with a lip-smacking balsamic vinaigrette. Tart, crunchy, and complex, it left me wrecked--and wracked with longing for more. (In fact, I'd like one right now.)
If anything can take your mind off the pork confit salad, it's the venison ($19)--a modest portion of tough, tasty meat taken from the leg of the deer--in three thick slices, each slightly burnt on the outside, blush-red on the inside, served over a luscious medley of mushrooms, celery, spring onions, and pearl barley swimming in a hot, tasty broth (in which to dunk and moisten the chewy game). Also a standout is the whole chicken roasted to order ($30, intended to be split between two people), which arrives--crisp, golden, gorgeous--sitting in a soupy pool of split peas, bacon, and dandelion greens.
Utterly unlike any other fine dining establishment in the city, Le Pichet is small, spare, and bright (like an actual European cafe) with white tile floors, a shared bench that runs the length of the wall, and no view of anything. This is not the place to go for an evening of quiet, squishy romance; it's where you stage a sophisticated quarrel about, say, Sartre. Everyone is talking over everyone else, and the tables are packed so tightly together that it's natural to become involved in the conversations of others. Really, the only thing with any distance here is the service, administered by a staff so richly educated and offhandedly efficient that they can smile warmly and somehow make you feel humiliated all at once (especially when you venture to pronounce something like demi-douzaine d'huîtres crûes à la bordelaise). This is supposed to resemble Paris, after all. CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE
Maximilien in the Market
81A Pike St (Pike Place Market), 682-7270.
Walking down the long hallway that leads to Maximilien's entrance feels like walking through an instant neon-lit gateway to hushed elegance and white linen--an isolated arrondissement where brass pigs and bruised fish and eager tourists cease to exist.
Once inside, quirky French pop music plays on the stereo, and the entire dining room overlooks Puget Sound; every table is a "good table." For dinner, expect old-school favorites, since Maximilien's menu doesn't stray too far from Exactly How the French Do It. Even local ingredients are prepared with classic technique: The kitchen's not butter-shy, and sauces are by the book. Sometimes this means fancy-pants treatment: de rigueur Northwest salmon ($25) dolled up with a lobster-and-white-truffle-oil sauce. New Zealand snapper ($28) is flanked by fresh scallops and spot prawns, all doused in a tomato, foie gras, and brandy sauce. The big splurge, however (for both your wallet and your arteries), is the tournedos de boeuf Rossini ($35): a hunk of beef tenderloin seared with foie gras and served with a truffle-Armagnac sauce.
This is not to say that everything here is all champagne wishes and truffle-oil dreams. On a recent night, the foie gras special ($17.95) was lovely and minimalist, with quick-seared liver resting in a warm plum soup. Cassoulet ($22) is kept simple (almost too simple) with stewed white beans and garlic, on top of which sausage, duck confit, lamb, veal, and tender pork pile after being slow-cooked in stock. Rosemary sprigs provide some nice fragrance and a slight hint of additional seasoning, but truth be told, I've had plenty of better cassoulet; all that confit and sausage and meat stock was deliciously salty and flavorful already, but when mixed with beans that have also been salted and stewed in stock, you end up with something that--while undeniably good--lacks complexity. Seared venison ($27.75), however, was superb--deeply blushing slices of juicy (and not the slightest bit gamy) meat with an assertive purple mustard sauce, served with plain asparagus and mashed potatoes... plus bacon-wrapped asparagus tips, always a nice touch.
Don't be surprised (or offended) if your check arrives with the proper gratuity already attached. Sure, it feels a little weird at first, but just think of the service charge as the ultimate badge of authenticity--it can be convenient when you're tipsy, and it's so very French. MIN LIAO
1815 N 45 St (Wallingford Center), 547-5791.
A word of advice: Au Bouchon does not mean "in the bush" in French. A second word of advice: When you dine there--and you most definitely should--make sure to order the duck breast ($17), which à la Française is sein de canard (or something like that), though on Au Bouchon's menu it's listed simply as "Duck Breast," which makes for simple ordering (you ugly American).
What's so great about the duck breast? First, duck is a ridiculously fatty bird. Second, at Au Bouchon it's draped with a brilliant Chambord-raspberry sauce, and served with potatoes seemingly inspired by Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Third: Did I mention duck is very fatty?
But I'm way ahead of myself. Before the duck, my dinner companion (who was the one who thought Au Bouchon meant "in the bush") and I began our dinner with moules marinière ($9), a pile of steamed mussels swimming in white wine sauce with shallots and garlic. We had leaned toward the Escargots Saint Michel ($8) as an appetizer, but chickened out when we decided the description "baked in a puffy pastry with blue cheese" hinted at more daring than we could muster. The mussels were... fine--I wish I could say more, but mussels are never really exciting to me. Au Bouchon's were steamed to perfection, and the sauce was rather tasty, but in hindsight we should've thrown caution to the wind and gone for the snails.
Entrées: Besides my aforementioned duck breast, my companion, who had never partaken of veal before, ordered the Veal a la Jurassienne ($16), which is a cutlet stuffed with Gruyère, ham, and coated in a demi-glace. Spielberg-inspired potatoes were also on hand, along with vegetables. The cutlet resembled a meatloaf, which startled my companion at first (as she put it, "The loaf was unexpected"), but any apprehension at the meat's shape quickly disappeared once said meat was eaten, as dinner companion enjoyed her first veal experience.
(Possible food critic fraud-exposing side note: To me, the veal tasted a little like a cheddar-and-ham Hot Pocket, a thought I kept to myself lest it made me look like an idiot in front of my dinner companion--as it just has with this here printing.) BRADLEY STEINBACHER
86 Pine St (Post Alley), 728-2800.
The person I am when I go to Cafe Campagne--a polite, quiet girl who eats leisurely French dinners and is quite content to go to bed early after finishing dessert--is a person I wish I could be more often.
I can camp out at the counter with a glass of wine and a month-old magazine and dig in: moules marinière ($11), an excellent cassoulet ($19, and with all the proper meats--lamb, pork, duck, sausage), homemade pork and liver pâté ($9), roasted chicken with sage noodles ($17), steak frites ($18)--food that sustains me when I walk home on cold, windy evenings, food that helps keep anxiety at bay.
On a recent irritable night, my pan-sautéed trout ($15) with plain steamed potatoes and a robust almond-lemon-brown-butter sauce did more to calm my frazzled nerves than the Homeland Security Act ever will. The boneless trout was fresh and flavorful, glistening with a practically illegal amount of butter, flecked with minced herbs and almond slivers. Crispy duck confit ($15) is served in a small cast-iron skillet with fried thyme potatoes, the darkened duck's skin an impressive crackly armor for deliciously tender leg meat, rosy and softly salty. Like the trout, it's luxurious without being overwhelming. Such details are discreet here, casual and not showy, like the chicken wings braised with oil-cured olives and white wine ($10), or the duck-liver toasts that accompany one of the salads, or the intense red wine and foie gras reduction sauce served with the oeufs en meurette at brunch ($11). Blasts of sharp Roquefort give steak frites ($18) depth and bravado; accompanying sautéed escarole provides a pleasing balance. Even a simple dessert of orange and grapefruit segments ($7) is intelligently elevated: marinated in cold white wine and fresh mint and finished with a spoonful of unsweetened whipped cream, which slowly dissolves, swirling about and creating a light cream bath. MIN LIAO (3/27/2003)
401 Lenora St (Warwick Hotel), 777-1990.
You could blame it on a patriotic stance that keeps people away from its tables, but I imagine the real reason more people aren't at Brasserie Margaux these days is the food. I'm not even sure you could include this restaurant in an anti-French boycott if you wanted to, since, other than the name and a few offerings--French onion soup, snails, foie gras--the place has about as much to do with the European country as George Bush does.
Located in the Warwick Hotel, Margaux has all the visual trappings of a fine eating establishment--the dark wood, linen tablecloths, and leather-bound menus. The place is elegant, dimly lit, and old-school in a way that makes you want to drink glasses of Roederer champagne ($10 glass) all night.
The key ingredient to the meals at Margaux seems to be sauce, and not since my parents left me with TV dinners for the night have I tasted food so heavily drenched in the stuff. The maple-cured pork loin chop ($18.50) attempted to hide tasteless meat under a coating of pure sugar, while the "braised greens" were drenched in more oil than a teenager's face. The smoked sockeye salmon tower appetizer ($8.95), a delicious mound of smoked salmon, pears, and chives on a bed of greens, was smothered in excess balsamic vinegar. The fish special--Alaskan halibut stuffed with crab ($22.95)--tasted like fancy fish sticks, and while good, it was also floating on an orange glaze that was too sweet even for dessert.
Dessert itself, however, was really good: The fresh fruit dessert du jour ($6.50) on a recent evening consisted of candied orange peels placed around vanilla-bean-scented orange slices and cardamom crème caramel. The mixture was refreshingly light and perfectly sweet, and the complimentary post-dessert chocolate truffles were small but decadently rich.
If you're looking for French food, you're better off going to a real French restaurant; save this place for the hotel patrons who might not know any better. JENNIFER MAERZ
Le Panier Very French Bakery
1902 Pike Place (Pike Place Market), 441-3669.
Situated in the middle of the Pike Place Market, Le Panier draws a healthy crowd of tourists and locals, who brave the bakery's occasional long lines uncomplainingly. Besides its array of lovely, mouthwatering croissants, specialty breads, and pâtisseries, the bakery offers a small but appetizing selection of casse-croûte (snacks)--in this case, tidily made sandwiches on slender, fresh baguettes ($4-$5). The Toulonnais (a baguette filled with tuna, capers, tomatoes, dijonnaise sauce, and fresh greens) is delicious, and the crudité sandwich (chèvre, tomatoes, cucumbers, and greens) is cool and slightly black-peppery. (Some of Le Panier's other savory options aren't as rewarding: The jambon mornay croissant, filled with béchamel sauce and Gruyère, was a little heavy and oily when tried on a recent visit, inspiring a lukewarm response from my companion, Seattle's sexiest unpublished writer--and while my puff pastry filled with spinach and "just a little" cream [$2.60] had a fine vegetable/cream flavor, the heavy filling resulted in a soggy pastry.)
Sweetness also abounds on the shelves: pain au chocolat, tartelettes with thick layers of lemon custard, croissants filled with apricot preserves, friands (Le Panier's friands are kind of like--begging the pardon of pâtissiers everywhere--perfectly actualized Nilla Wafers). On a recent trip, craving sugar without the shock, I tried Le Panier's Napoleon and wasn't disappointed--the crême pâtissière sandwiched between the crisp puff pastry layers was light and only mildly sweet, a nice alternative to standard-issue dessert fare.
The titular "very French" aspect of Le Panier isn't an empty boast--the food is near-flawless, the atmosphere is relaxing, and jolly French accordion music accompanies your meal. But be warned: A glance out the window at the red-brick street--where on any given day, a shining line of proud Ford Expeditions idles slowly past the American flag flapping just beyond the market roof--may interrupt your Gallic fantasy. ANNE MATHEWS
11 Roy St (Queen Anne), 284-6465.
I have never been to France, and I also don't know much about real French people and their language. I'm primarily acquainted with the French world by way of its cinema, literature, and philosophy. And so it's not surprising that the one French restaurant I visit regularly (and I rarely visit French establishments), Figaro Bistro, was introduced to me by a writer, and my experience of eating the food is not direct, but through the medium of an essay by one of my favorite French philosophers.
However, the writer who introduced me to Figaro Bistro is Jonathan Raban, who is not French but British. And as far as I can tell from our conversations, Raban is not a Francophile. Raban just likes the place as a scene--moody reds, folk paintings of French life, and the wait staff, who speak with thick, cinematic accents. Most importantly, unless there is an opera or some other fancy to-do at Seattle Center, the Figaro is not crowded and noisy, so our conversations are clear and easy. Raban also finds the food to be sufficient, which is saying a lot because of all the people I know in Seattle, none is more sophisticated about the food than he.
My most recent visit to Figaro (which, regrettably, was without the company of Raban, but another friend, who, though not a writer, still offered a lively conversation), I ordered soup with grilled red bell peppers and tomato, a hangar steak, and a calamari salad, all of which were excellent as far as my mouth and mind were concerned. But what I usually order at the Figaro is the Truth: steak frites (steak and French fries). I order this dish because of a short essay by the philosopher Roland Barthes titled "Steak and Chips" (Mythologies, 1957), which describes steak and chips as the "basic element[s], nationalized even more than socialized," with a rare and blood-juicy steak representing the "very flesh of the French." When I order a plate of steak and chips at the Figaro, the steak must be underdone, so that I can enjoy not the French, but the truth of the French--their flesh, their slender fried souls, and their blood-red wine. CHARLES MUDEDE
611 E Pine St (Capitol Hill), 328-0292.
My brilliant and modest friend D. is notable for his bachelor's kitchen, where he has one pot and one pan, and often the pan does double duty as the pot's top. Somehow, from this limited batterie de cuisine, he manages to produce excellent tamales and Chinese dumplings--the mark, I think, of a true cook. But he does own a crepe pan, which tells you something about where his passions lie.
As we sat down to dinner at 611, D. told me about a Craig Claiborne crepe recipe which calls for something like eight eggs. "I couldn't figure out why they made me so sick," D. said; he is now keeping company with a much more reasonable recipe.
The restaurant filled up, and there was a paradisiacal eggy smell in the air, a French-toast-in-the-morning feeling. As we devoured our appetizers--little salads of butter lettuce perfectly (not stingily) dressed with vinaigrette and walnut-sized dollops of Cambazola cheese ($4.50), and a plate of charcuterie served with caper butter ($8, a genius combination)--we discussed the proper number of crepes to eat at one sitting. Fourteen was suggested.
When our crepes arrived, they were larger than the plates underneath them. A serene brown (due, in part, to the use of buckwheat flour), crispy at the edges, redolent of eggs and butter, this is perhaps the most heavenly of foods, ephemeral and hearty at the same time. My champignon crepe was wrapped around a heady sauté of mixed mushrooms and some kind of cream sauce ($8.25); D.'s saumon-chèvre was a more decadent version with smoked salmon, chèvre, and peppery scallions ($8.25).
A good crepe is a balance between inside and out. This is not a burrito--everything all jammed together every which way--but an exercise in complements. You enjoy the contrast between the sauce-soaked center and the crisp bits from the edges, between the pancake and the filling.
And we enjoyed every bit, and then we ordered dessert crepes, which arrive standing up, like an amphitheater. The pommes nord (caramelized apples with ice cream, was nice, but the citron was excellent, simple, alternately sweet and very tart indeed. D. and I ended the night with our count at two crepes apiece; nowhere near 14, but plenty, and plenty good. EMILY HALL
Crêpe de Paris
1333 Fifth Ave (Rainier Square, downtown), 623-4111.
Despite the fact that Crêpe de Paris has the ambience of an airport smoking lounge, my fella and I excitedly ordered the Frenchiest things on the menu. Unfortunately, bisque de homard ($7.50), a molten salt lick of Elmer's glue and tomato soup with three embarrassed-looking fragments of shrimp, caused an acute burning in the back of my throat. My fella damned the soupe des les oignions et fromages ($6.95) with faint praise. "This isn't inedible, but it isn't special."
With heavy hearts, we moved on to rillettes de touraine ($6.50). This pâté of duck and pork was served with six measly Safeway-style crackers. "I swear this is tuna and liverwurst," my fella murmured. Scampi Provençal ($8.50) was shrimp bits in tomato paste.
I had the sole meuniere--a slab of salted and fried fish--with lemon butter and capers ($18.95). This saddened but did not surprise, and was accompanied by a baked lemon wedge (Sunkist sticker gratis), rice like foam pellets, and a distinctly off-tasting ratatouille. Sorry, no capers here.
My fella poked at his tournedos Rossini--a filet mignon with foie gras and black truffle sauce ($26.95). The giant puck of tasty beef was slathered in the now-familiar salty glue sauce with nary a whiff of truffle. Accompaniments included more questionable ratatouille, a desiccated lone broccoli floret, and gray potatoes. The so-called "foie gras" pushed him over the edge: "This would be hilarious if it wasn't so sad. It's like Spam with less flavor and more salt."
For dessert, crème caramel ($7.75) was actually pretty good, but the peches et glace ($7.75), with canned peaches redolent of a senior citizens' cafeteria, finally defeated me. Bloated and hallucinating from a salt overdose, I could swear the French proprietress was crouched under our table nibbling at our real foie gras (and truffles and capers) as she played the ultimate joke on all us stupid, tasteless Americans. TAMARA PARIS
3230 Eastlake Ave E (Eastlake),
The employees at Le Fournil are welcoming and beautiful, but in both regards they're outdone by the food they make and serve. The bakery offers a variety of lovingly created, affordable French pastries ($1.75-$3.50) and has aimed, among other things, to teach the city to appreciate a good croissant--and from the scarcity of said goods come lunch hour, it has clearly succeeded. (For the widest selection, show up early.)
There's plenty beyond croissants to choose from. Mille-feuille (pronounced "meel-fwee," although the people at Le Fournil are kind enough not to snicker if you request the "milfoil," as I did), an elegant pastry layered with cream and dusted with confectioners' sugar, is light, rich, and dreamily addictive. Fruit tartes range from the delicate pistachio pear tarte, with its greenish, glistening layers of pear fanned over pistachio paste, to the more extreme "Pure Passion" tarte--a thin shell filled with raspberries and an assertive, fruity passion-fruit cream, topped by artfully bronzed meringue.
Le Fournil's assortment runs pretty sweet, but the savory options are also good. Sandwiches (various fillings; the $7.50 sandwich special includes a pastry and drink) are particularly satisfying; you can snack on ham and cheese, or gobble down pâté with cornichons. On a recent visit I tried the latter, and it captured my greedy heart forever--the tiny cornichons (spicy pickles, made from gherkin cucumbers) were a perfect counterflavor to the smooth, smoky pâté, and the bread was soft enough to leave the roof of my mouth intact (but crusty enough to banish any thoughts of the pasty Wonder Bread product that constituted my formative sandwich-roll experiences).
Sitting at the window counter on my last visit, I listened as two dark-haired women conversed animatedly in French at the interior tables; a construction worker from the enormous condo project across the street dashed through four lanes of busy traffic to buy a bag of sandwiches and pastries. ANNE MATHEWS