The best French meal I've had was eaten during a vacation that included three days in Paris. Nothing fancy-we were traveling on a budget-but quintessentially Parisian: simple food in a small, lively corner bistro.
I finally had a similar experience just the other night, on a visit to the East Village's Café Chloe. I am excited to report that San Diego finally has an authentic French bistro.
Café Chloe sports the classic bistro look: a simple and elegant color scheme, intimate lighting and plenty of outdoor seating-though, given the colorful cast of characters still inhabiting the East Village, I'm not sure those are the seats I'd choose.
The concise menu details breakfast, brunch, lunch, small bites and dinner on one side of the page, with the other devoted to an unusually descriptive wine and beer list.
While most restaurants, in my experience, present merely a list of bottles, Café Chloe does away with this snobbish practice by describing each with a short list of colorful adjectives. The menu includes several food-friendly wines rarely served in restaurants, such as albariño, a pleasantly acidic Spanish white; New Zealand sauvignon blanc, equally pleasant and acidic; and a number of Oregon pinots noir.
Café Chloe also serves a small selection of quality beers, like Belgium's Orval Trappist Ale, Scotland's Traquair Coriander Ale and Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout. The only flaw here is the absence of some of our local craft brews, but at least the Bud/Miller/Coors triumvirate of mediocrity is avoided.
Food-wise, the menu takes a less-is-more approach. The descriptions are succinct and enticing, consisting of no more than the components of the dishes-no adjective-laden hyperbole required.
I ordered steak and frites with sherry butter and gorgonzola greens. That was the dish I had in Paris, and I was curious to see how Café Chloe's version measured up against that memory. My date opted for the chicken vol au vent with wild mushrooms and herb sauce. We also shared an appetizer of crostini with three spreads.
One of the impressive things about the service at Café Chloe was the attention to detail. I ordered a glass of wine to accompany the appetizer, but my date wanted an iced tea without caffeine. Our server went out of her way to make fresh tea and ice it, waiting to serve the beverages together. This courtesy was consistent throughout our meal.
The crostini were great. If one were to guess the definition of crostini based on the version served at most restaurants, one might think it's Italian for "unpleasantly hard bread." Here, though, the bread was only just browned, still retaining some softness, and lightly brushed with good-quality olive oil.
The bread was the perfect foil for the three spreads: spicy green olive, roasted red bell pepper, and garlic and tarragon. All the spreads were excellent and had intense, concentrated flavors. I especially liked the green olive, which had a nice kick on the finish and paired really well with the albariño.
The entrées were similarly impressive, particularly the steak and frites, a deceptively simple dish consisting of steak and fried potatoes. This version was every bit as good as what I remembered from my travels. The steak was grilled medium rare and topped with a compound butter flavored with sherry and shallots. The flavor is impossible to describe, but "heavenly" would be a good start. The accompanying fries were good, as was the salad on the side, but the meat was definitely the star.
The vol au vent was also quite tasty. This is sort of like a French version of chicken pot pie-flaky puff pastry filled with chicken, mushrooms and a tarragon-flavored cream sauce. Rich, buttery and bad for you-but in a good way.
For dessert, we sampled the fresh blackberry bread pudding with bourbon caramel sauce, and a side dish of house-made ice cream.
These desserts were as good as the rest of the meal, particularly the ice cream. The two varieties we sampled-honey and creme fraiche-had amazing clarity, their simple flavors cushioned by a silky base of frozen cream.
Café Chloe is open daily, with breakfast served Tuesday through Friday from 8 to 11 a.m.; lunch Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; dinner Monday through Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m.; and brunch on Saturdays and Sundays. Prices are reasonable, with entrées in the mid-teens. Wines go for $25 to $45 a bottle, and about $6 to $10 per glass.