Croque Madame: most popular item
First order of the day: Do. Not. Look. In. The. Mirror.
Bit too much celebrating lately. So, second order of the day: belly up for a cup of real French coffee at Madeleine’s. Because, well, bit too much celebrating lately. And Madeleine’s is French. Real French, run by an actual Frenchman who swears he imports everything from France, from coffee to butter to wine to cheese, so you know it all don’t just taste French, it is French. Translation? Strong coffee.
240 South Cedros Avenue, San Diego
So here I am, outside this patio near one of the great sculptures of Cedros, a joyous girl running with a large bottle of champagne. She’s how I know I’ve arrived. She, and the black-and-orange plaque: “Madeleine, French Cafe & Bakery,” surrounded by bright orange chairs. And ooh. Three-legged tables. So they never wobble. No more jiggled coffee spilling on your legs. I swear. Every restaurateur should have these.
Inside, the food menu’s on the wall. I mean, yes, could just go for a croissant. They make them here. Cost $4.50, even with almonds and chocolate. Or fougasse olive bread (think: focaccia). Costs $6. Or hey, actual madeleines, $2.50 each. Menu’s divided into breakfast, eggs, crepes, salads, tartines, small plates, and main plates. And the prices, guess you have to say, are not bad for being in the “Design District.” Eggs “your way” on toast costs $8. French toast with berries is $10. “Parisienne omelette,” with French cooked ham and gruyere cheese, $11, or you can have it as a crepe, same price. The Salade Niçoise, with egg and tuna, is $13. And just to remind us this is a French joint, the first “small plate” is escargots ($12), and there’s a duck foie gras terrine made right here in-house. It is $14, but a pâté plate goes for only $8. Salmon and capers is $14, the raw (let’s not forget) filet mignon beef tartare is $15, and the most expensive item on the menu is a mixed platter of cheese and charcuterie for $28. Guess you could share this and be paying $14 each.
D’aagh: in the end, the pâté wins out. Hey, $8. It comes as two triangles of liver pate, plus seven cuts of baguette, four gherkins, and a splot of mustard.
Mystery maiden - Madeleine? - runs towards Design District
And out there in that sunlight, it hits the spot with the coffee I get ($3). Next time, I’m gonna try the duck terrine, though. Terrine’s usually made of bigger chunks of meat. In this case, duck breast.
Next time comes a few days later.
Same guy’s at the counter. Emmanuel. Frenchman, from Paris. Got a buddy, Steve, helping him out. Also French. And wow. Turns out Steve’s a European soccer star from one of the world’s top pro clubs, Paris St. Germain. “I was signing autographs after a game,” he says. “Manu [Emmanuel] was in a loge. I signed a photo for him. He said if ever I was in California to look him up.”
Pate, good-tasting and not bad value at $8. Made in-house
And then, they’re chattering away. Dang. You forget what a cool language French is. Then Steve’s handing a salad to this lady, Lacy. And with its sparkling strawberries sliced on top and slices of avo, it looks too délicieux for words.
“‘La Veggie,’” Lacy says. “I always have it.” It’s mainly spinach, arugula, goat cheese, cranberries, strawberries and walnuts. Costs $12, plus $2 for the avo.
By now, Lacy’s on a stool at the narrow wall-counter. “We Americans are so afraid of fat and flavor. The French have all the naughty stuff, but the good stuff too, and as part of a much more varied diet. You don’t see fat French kids. I’ve just ordered chicken goujon for mine.” She’s talking about chicken tenders. They come with French fries ($6).
“That should be Belgian fries,” says Lacy. “That’s who invented them, not the French.”
Emmanuel comes around with a bottle of rose wine and refills her glass. “Thank you, Manu,” she says. “He gives a very generous pour here, and only French wines. Good. But everything here’s French, right?”
“Everything,” Emmanuel says, “including ingredients. Flour, butter, cheeses. The jambon comes straight from Paris. That’s why things are a little more expensive.”
Wow. “So what’s most popular?” I ask. Emmanuel doesn’t hesitate. “Croque Monsieur,” he says. Good enough for me. I think about the salads, the snails, the duck foie gras, but a croque with all that cheese and ham? Can’t go wrong. But I go with the Croque Madame, which has an egg on top.
I go outside, sit down near a giant ancient Confucius statue, dead serious. The complete opposite of my prancing girl.
My croque comes with a vinaigrette salad, and gruyere cheese licking out from the thick breads and spilling over the ham splayed on top. The bread is lightly toasted but still very soft. Makes it an easy chew, and dang. If I wasn’t working, a glass of wine would just perfect the whole experience. Sigh. But Emmanuel’s coffee is a good second best.
Talking of which, have to say the very best croque I’ve ever had is still the one at Clayton’s Bistro in Coronado. Maybe because they marinate theirs overnight before baking. But this one gives it a run for its money.
It turns out Emmanuel owned three French restaurants in Hong Kong. Lived there for years. He thought about doing the same when he got here. “But you utter the words, ‘French restaurant,’ and what do people think? Heavy linens, expensive food. They usually don’t succeed here. So, suddenly I had this idea: ‘I’m going to create the French Starbucks! But best coffee, and everything real French.’”
Gotta go. The dancing girl looks like she’s saying, “You’ve got work to do!” Confucius is nodding.