721 Ninth Avenue, San Diego
I didn't know how fond I was of Parisian-style neighborhood bistros until I found myself living without one. A bistro is a place to enjoy a good quick (or slow) lunch, to depressurize after work with a glass of wine and a nibble, and perhaps stay for dinner if the menu sounds better than what's at home. Café Chloe's arrival signals a change in the East Village, and what has been a blighted area is starting to look a real neighborhood.
Chloe is sleeker than most bistros in Paris: It's light and bright, rather than dark and stained by decades of Gauloise fumes. The tall windows, creamy walls, bittersweet chocolate trim, and chrome-framed art photos delight the eye. The main dining room has bentwood "bistro chairs" and small white tables (for two or three), a bar counter, and a separate coffee bar. Left of the coffee bar, in what looks like a cubbyhole, is one of the two tiny, separate kitchens where food is prepared. (The other is upstairs.) Next to the main dining room is a semi-private "Man Ray" room, with a large table and chairs for a group. A sidewalk patio wraps around the front and side of the restaurant. The background music is thoroughly eclectic, hopping from light jazz to Nashville to Mississippi blues to ironic French cabaret tunes.
The menu hints at a feminine sensibility, with its emphasis on the lightest dishes of the classic bistro repertory. Don't look for the two-fisted, manly fare of working-class France (if any workers there can still afford their bistros) -- there's no cassoulet simmering on the back of the stove, no garlic-rubbed chicken roasting in the oven, nor even a chilled shellfish assiette perched on the bar. Instead, Chloe's menu is as smartly edited as a chic Parisienne's afternoon outfit. Portions are sufficient -- not overwhelming -- so that if you lunch here, you'll go back to work both well fed and awake.
But let's begin with sunup. Unlike most European bistros, Chloe is serious about breakfast. You can always grab a fresh-brewed coffee and croissant (from St. Tropez Bakery), but if you're in no hurry, some sybaritic starts await you. Poached eggs with sage-truffle beurre blanc, for instance, offer an inspired twist on Eggs Benedict. Perfectly cooked eggs arrive on a bed of sautéed mushrooms, spread over a crisp round of toasted sage-rosemary bread from Sadie Rose Bakery (formerly Upper Crust) on G Street. The sauce, resembling eggless Hollandaise, is spiked with fresh sage shreds, cutting the richness of the yolk and butter. Alongside is a perky salad with the gentle house dressing, a citrus vinaigrette made with fresh orange, lime, grapefruit, and lemon juices and extra-virgin olive oil.
Or you could start with a house-cured gravlax plate. With the mildest possible cure, the medium-thin slices of moist salmon come with chive crème fraîche, roasted cherry tomatoes, red onion slices, wheat bread, and a small heap of mâche greens. Costarring is a bland puréed egg salad, more like French-style small-curd scrambled eggs than America's mayo-drenched picnic fare. If the sage in the previous dish signals a sense of adventure, the egg salad marks an opposite tendency in Chloe's kitchen -- the vague, recessive flavors of some dishes may have you reaching for the salt and pepper. Before you do, pile all the elements of this platter onto the bread: The mixture is better than its parts, with the assertive onions and sweetly acidic tomatoes providing the missing spark.
One breakfast dish I regret missing is an omelet of fines herbes (chervil, parsley, tarragon, chives) and époisse cheese, served with Bruce Aidells' luscious smoked duck sausage (an old friend, but so recently introduced at Chloe that it wasn't yet printed on the menu).
The lunch-hour mainstay is the tartine, a Gallic-style, warm, open-face sandwich. A steak version features chewy, flavorful hanger steak. (The same cut recurs in a full portion at dinner as "steak frites.") The meat lies over a slab of walnut bread slicked with St. Agur blue cheese and dotted with small, sweet roasted cipollini onions. On top is a whirl of frisée (curly endive) and tiny halved tomatoes, and on the side a surprise treat -- raw tart apple slices, Belgian endive leaves, and candied walnuts. This trio is so harmonious, it needs only sequins and voices to cut a hit single. Other tartine toppings include roast butternut squash with fennel and goat cheese, egg salad (same as on the gravlax), and a daily special.
A number of dishes straddle lunch and dinner, including poached mussels with pommes frites. Our bivalves, all open and succulent, floated in a winey broth with sliced onions and crimson saffron threads. A small cup of lemony saffron aioli came with it, along with a vertical pile of French fries in a paper cone set inside another cup. The fries, strewn with kosher salt, are slim, pale, limp, and addictive, especially when dipped in the mussel broth. (The potatoes are also available on their own, arriving with three dips, including the saffron aoili.)
Macaroni and cheese (available at brunch, lunch, and dinner) is the heartiest entrée in the house. Made with smoky bits of chopped pancetta and four cheeses, including a pouf of gorgonzola mousse, it truly deserves to be called "cheese and macaroni." Richer than Donald Trump, it's probably best shared -- by a trio or quartet.
Its opposite number is a light salad of frisée with sautéed pancetta, which also runs through the menu as a lunch/brunch entrée, returning at dinner as a half-size "petite bistro salad." Many customers adore it, but having been spoiled by Fringale (in San Francisco), I find its flavors and proportions a bit awry. A daunting field of greens is topped with a poached egg that's a tad overcooked, if you want a runny yolk to goop through the rest of the ingredients. Interspersed with the greens are Stonehenge-sized croutons of toasted brioche, too large to soak up egg or dressing, or even to eat comfortably. (And as long as I'm getting cranky about this, I find the house citrus vinaigrette too wishy-washy for this dish; I longed for the classic zing of red wine vinegar to partner with the slightly bitter leaves.)
A "savory custard" is available at every meal. The contents and flavors inside the oval ramekin change weekly, to seize the best ingredients of the moment. Fresh from the oven, the custard arrives so infernally hot, it's hard to taste the "savor" -- or savor the taste. Best to break the surface and give the mixture a light stir, not only to cool it, but to unearth any goodies hidden at the bottom. The day I sampled the dish, peeled baby fava beans and a waft of Pecorino cheese were the secret ingredients. (The next week, I hear, it was lobster meat, darn it!) Alongside comes the inevitable salad, here a heap of spring mix, plus slabs of toasted brown bread.
Moroccan-inspired broiled lamb chops are the most exotic dinner dish. Four juicy baby rib chops (the equivalent of half a rack) are cooked a perfect medium-rare by default, their top surface crusted with Middle Eastern charmoula sauce, boldly herbal and slightly spicy. The chops are set atop Israeli couscous, which look like small pearls and taste something like barley and come with a combination of roasted red beets and winter squash, plus a handful of stir-fried skinny green beans. The veggies are plated in separate heaps, the better to display their distinct colors and flavors.
One hot entrée seems a throwback to "ladies' luncheon" food of the 1950s -- a vol-au-vent (puff pastry shell) from St. Tropez, filled with shredded chicken breast and wild mushrooms in cream sauce. The sauce includes fines herbes but in too discreet a quantity for my taste. (Bring 'em on!)
Other than a soup du jour, Chloe eschews showoffy, labor-intensive appetizers. However, there is an array of "Small Bites" for starters or snacks, any of them perfect with a glass of wine. These selections include assorted olives, hot oil-roasted Marcona almonds from Spain (the latest in trendy foodstuffs), simple combinations of soft cheese or spreads with bread, frites or veggies with dips, the savory custard discussed earlier, and an ever-changing plate of three unique cheeses (from Venissimo in Hillcrest) served with honeycomb and creative house-made confits and gelées.
If you enjoy wine, you'll fall in love with the list at Chloe, featuring bottles from over 20 international growing regions. Each selection is enticingly described in "winelish" (e.g., "explosive/bold berry/blue velvet"), and every choice is available by the glass (priced from $6 to $16.50). Better yet, they pour generously, at about four glasses to a bottle, rather than the standard miserly five. If you can't decide between two wines, the friendly staff will bring you samples of each. Aside from Veuve Clicquot champagne, bottle prices run $24 to $48. The beer list is shorter but equally savvy. For an out-of-the-ordinary house-made beverage, there's a "lavender lemonade" that I found so refreshing, I've suffered mad cravings for it ever since. The liquid is a pretty, pale mauve, and the fresh herb's powdery-floral flavor softens the acidity. If soft drinks are your thing, don't miss the organic root beer, made by Sprecher, a small company in Wisconsin. It actually tastes as if it might have some roots to it.
Do save room for dessert. Nearly all are house-made (except for a chocolate truffle sampler from a local start-up, Elite Chocolates). The best are collaborations between chef Katie Grebow and sous chef Ashley Fulk. Our warm raspberry-thyme tart on the thinnest, most crumbly crust was heavenly, the subtle use of herbs making all the difference in the filling. It was topped with a scoop of splendid house-made crème fraîche ice cream. A few days later, the tart du jour featured chopped pistachios bound in sugar and butter, like a pecan pie from those halcyon days before the invention of Karo. Needless to say, one of the ice cream flavors that evening was pistachio -- intensely so. Each day also brings a different brioche bread pudding, lighter than air, with a small pitcher of buttery caramel sauce to pour on. Chocoholics will want to dive into the pot de crème, bittersweet chocolate pudding of a satiny texture and concentrated flavor. And for an old-fashioned sweet, consider the rakish root-beer float.
One evening, we arrived early for dinner (to beat the Petco crowd to the street parking). As we contemplated the menu, two well-tressed young women greeted each other at the doorway, settled at a table, and ordered a couple of glasses of white wine and a shared order of frites. A gray-haired man daydreamed at the bar as he sipped a glass of red wine and nibbled almonds. A muscular younger man sat alone on the patio, studying a textbook and sipping the soup du jour. Do urban neighborhoods need bistros? Happily, we now have a handy one in our neighborhood of the future.
ABOUT CAFÉ CHLOE
Café Chloe was founded this past winter by Alison McGrath (a former chef who was general manager of Rice in the Hotel W), along with her husband John Chute and their partner, catering manager Tami Ratliffe. Alison and John got many of their ideas during a ten-year stint working in San Francisco restaurants, where they developed their ideas for the café's striking interior design. They named the fruit of their labors after their daughter Chloe. They didn't have far to look for a chef: Katie Grebow was working as a sous chef at Rice.
"I'd always worked in restaurants," says Katie, "and when I graduated from college I was trying to figure out what to do next. My family and friends started pushing me to decide what to do with my life, and I realized that I was still in the food industry, I wasn't leaving it, so it occurred to me that I needed to go to culinary school. I went to the Cordon Bleu Pasadena and have never been sorry. I immediately got a job at Rice. I worked under Riko Bartolomei [now chef-owner of Asia Vous in Escondido], and he was really great. After he left, we had a series of chefs there, and Ashley [Fulk, her sous chef] was sous chef, but he was pretty much the only chef for a couple of months. After that we had Matt Herter, but by now he's gone, too. Alison McGrath and I became friends at Rice, and when she said she was starting Café Chloe, I said, 'Oh, take me with you!' and she did."
I asked why they called it a café rather than a bistro. "It has evolved into a bistro, actually," said Katie. "The owners' original vision was of a café, so that people would feel comfortable coming in all day and having a leisurely time over a cup of coffee, reading a book, staying however long they wanted, instead of being rushed out like a restaurant. Also, cafés serve food all through the lunch and dinner period, and they wanted to do that, with counter service and chalk menus. But then I came onboard, and we evolved into a more extensive operation. We'd always planned on doing tartines, that kind of light food. We've evolved into sort of a bistro menu -- it just grew. The split kitchen doesn't really affect us that much, aside from the servers forgetting what they came for, but we do have an issue with space. We have a very small space to cook in. We have a lighter menu, I guess, because it's me cooking. I was a vegetarian for ten years. Now I like meat cooking -- I don't love to eat it, but I like to cook it. It's funny, I really don't eat light. Cheeses are my thing, I love them.
"We're starting to do more specials now, with more meat options. Right now we're doing a roast half-chicken. Sometimes we do filet mignon, fish, or pork tenderloin. We're going to try to do more special appetizers, too -- calamari, lobster, things we haven't done yet. I'm really looking forward to that."