Four Ever Young
Au Petit Four
It was her diet that did it. Not many people would dare consume such a steady stream of ultra-rich foods like chicken pâté, roast duck and Yule log, plus several glasses of wine every day. Really, ingesting that much fat and alcohol, how could French citizen Jeanne Calment have expected to enjoy a normal life span?
In the end, she didn't. Calment passed away August 4, 1997, at the age of 122. At that time, she was the longest living human being whose age could be confirmed by reliable records. And scientists credited her survival to what she ate. Bordeaux cardiologist Serge Renaud called it "the French paradox" -- despite diets high in saturated fat, the French tend to live longer and have one of the lowest rates of coronary and cardiovascular disease in the industrialized world, he found. He credited part of the cure to maintaining small portion sizes, and part to wine -- two or three glasses a day, he said, combats heart disease and cancer.
Then just last month, U.S. and French researchers announced at a conference in San Francisco that the French are tightening their grip on the world's longest average life expectancy -- projected to be 85 by 2033.
I want to party with the French. And happily enough, a couple of new bistros in town make that very easy. Au Petit Four, opened five months ago at the Esplanade, is delightful enough on its own. But being able to convince ourselves that it's health food makes this cafe almost too good to be true.
Au Petit Four is owned by Pierre and Catherine Berraud-Dufour. About seven months ago, they relocated their pastry shop from Lyon, setting up in a tiny space near the Esplanade's movie theater escalators. It's easy enough to skip on by if you're not looking for it.
Slow down. This is the real deal. There's no wine served, but no problem -- stop in at Vintage Grape across from Roy's in the mall, and pick up a bottle of your own. (Be practical and bring your own glasses and corkscrew, too.)
Prepare for a civilized French rhythm, too. While Au Petit is fast food, it doesn't feel that way. Everything on the compact menu is made from scratch and prepared to order. At lunch, it's no stretch to sit back for more than an hour, basking in the fine weather and people-watching on the patio out front, or cozied up at one of the little tables inside. This is a great pick for solo diners, too, who can snuggle up with a good book while they nibble.
The Berraud-Dufours arrive at 4 a.m. each day, Pierre tells me in his musical French accent, preparing the expansive selection of pastries, rolls and muffins fresh daily. How to choose, with golden flaky croissants, plain or stuffed with almond or chocolate? What's more tempting, fruit Danish, brioche, apple turnovers, palmier, scones or tartines (French bread slices) with Arizona Harvest organic jam and butter? For unbridled celebration, will it be beautiful eclairs, fudge cakes, fruit tarts, Napoleon, slabs of Bavarian flan or custard cream? Pain suisse is a fine breakfast, the sweet croissant dough folded over dark chocolate chips and baked, to be sipped with a cup of steaming espresso.
The menu expands at 11 a.m., with offerings of salads, sandwiches, quiches and tartines. Au Petit's Nicoise salad is wondrous, bringing a pretty pile of field greens topped with sliced hard-boiled egg, quartered tomatoes and Kalamata olives. It's centered with a mound of flaked tuna, then surrounded by boiled white potato slices, all sprinkled with parsley. This mellow albacore sure doesn't taste canned, forked between pulls of soft French country bread and dipped in a fabulous vinaigrette. I only wish the traditional green beans and anchovies were included.
The house salad is appealing as well, cascading with ribbons of thin, silky smoked salmon sprinkled with lemon, olive oil and basil -- though sometimes the kitchen goes berserk with the lemon and ruins the dish. It's not really salad so much -- the fish nests atop toasted baguette slices moistened with crème fraiche. But as with every dish here, it comes with field greens and that incredible vinaigrette, a blend of Dijon, olive oil, balsamic, salt and pepper that glosses our lips like butter. Try it with the goat cheese salad, the tangy, creamy chevre grilled on sliced baguette.
Everyone knows that a critical component of French dining is the bread, and Au Petit doesn't let us down. Ciabatta (Italian country bread) is good, but the baguette is masterful, the torpedo loaves expertly chewy and crusty.
Baguette's a perfect vehicle for the mozzarella sandwich, lightly stuffed with a single slice of opaque marbled prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, ripe tomato, green leaf lettuce and olive oil. Eat slowly to savor the pleasing textures of salty and smooth, chewy and soft.
I'm also partial to the Parisian sandwich, uniting thin slices of Swiss cheese and ham with tomato, sliced hard-boiled egg, greens and mayonnaise. The chicken sandwich, though, is terrible -- the skinny breast and Swiss slices disappear in the hearty bread, and mushy bacon slices are just gross. And tartines would be fine if there were more to them -- two teeny baguette rounds toasted with tomato, mozzarella and basil don't give much to munch on.
Quiche gets us back on track, served hot in cute little potpie tins, the poufy egg custards packed with combinations of ham, salmon or spinach and Gruyère in buttery crust. The kitchen doesn't always have pissaladiere, but it's worth checking for -- a soothing flan with chunked tomato, onion, black olives and anchovies.
Restrained entree portions make dessert a guiltless indulgence. Tuxedo cake is sinful, with white chocolate mousse enrobed in dark chocolate; chiboust layers pastry cream and apples under a glistening cap of crème brûlée; and a lemon tart is pure sweetness and zing.
The only way Au Petit could be more satisfying to our spirits is if we could follow the French custom of bringing our pets along, to gaze at us hopefully for any errant scraps. In the meantime, however, dining here makes living forever seem like a wonderful gift indeed.
So how much pâté should a body consume to become a centenarian? Scientists haven't told us yet, but we can conduct our own research, supping on the stuff at Cafe Soleil.
Cafe Soleil has been with us for about four months now, quietly churning out a sumptuous array of bistro fare for just a few francs. Real, homemade pâté, stuffed in a baguette with a generous salad for less than five bucks? Vive la France! This version is ultra smooth (think Brunschwager), gilded with champagne and partnered with gloriously tart and crunchy cornichons (little pickles). Oh, for a glass of wine to cut the richness, but no, this tiny shop doesn't serve liquor, tant pis (too bad). Well, there are always picnics to go.
With just a half-dozen tables inside and perhaps as many more on an umbrella'd patio, this colorful cafe doesn't look like it would offer much selection. Think again -- the staff is busy, stocking glass cases with croissants, rolls, pastries, cookies and muffins. There are bagels at breakfast, heaped with our choices of lox, tomato, cream cheese or Swiss, American and mozzarella cheeses. On Sundays, we can select from five special breakfast entrees that change weekly.
Cafe Soleil makes its own staples, too -- we can see the bread glowing golden brown in a rotating, glass-fronted oven on the back wall, reflected in an adjacent wall mirrored and painted with a map of France.
Almost 20 sandwiches are offered, all served with Caesar or field green salad, or coleslaw. Caesar is such only because it stars romaine lettuce -- the dressing is the same as the sweet, sometimes thick, more often soupy house vinaigrette. I love the croutons, though, chunks of toasted leftover bread straight from Cafe Soleil's oven.
The Le Parisian sandwich is a friendly concoction, layering ham, hard-boiled egg, chopped cornichons, lettuce, tomato and mayo. A souleiado is even better, tucked in my choice of a plump croissant, the lean roast beef slathered with zesty Dijon and mayo, paired again with crunchy cornichons, lettuce and tomato. Even a simple turkey sandwich is special, called the Bordeaux and filled with honest, carved breast, hard-boiled egg, lettuce, tomato and a slick of mayo.
Wine would be just the capper for a Camembert sandwich, too, the thick slabs of rind-on cheese slid into a buttered baguette with a little cup of cornichons on the side. This food inspires romance -- the kind that makes you want to simply sit, think and luxuriate in the flavors of salty, gooey richness.
Grilled ham and cheese is comfort food in any nation, and the French croque monsieur here is terrific. Soft white bread swoons under piles of hand-carved meat, plus Swiss cheese inside and melted over the top. (Try it with ham, tomato, garlic and Swiss, or smoked salmon, tomato and Swiss.)
How often does anyone in town offer pastrami salmon? Cafe Soleil does, and it's excellent. It comes in the St. Tropez salad, a slab cured and seasoned on its edges just like the meat, and layered with nicely salty smoked salmon, smoked trout, avocado and tomato. The Soleil salad's charming, too, stocked with lots of mozzarella, prosciutto, Kalamata olives, tomato and fresh basil over mesclun (young greens).
I'm hardly enthralled with Cafe Soleil's Nicoise salad, though. This tuna resonates of its tin can origins (even when it's hidden in the Marseille sandwich with hard-boiled egg, scallions and mayonnaise). Plus, there are all kinds of odd extras tossed in -- celery, radish, corn kernels and green onions along with the expected hard-boiled egg, tomatoes, black olives, cucumber, green pepper and anchovies.
No complaints with dessert -- crème brûlée is nicely smooth inside and torched to a brittle sugary head. An opera cake is wicked delight, layering dark chocolate with hazelnut cream and pastry in a pretty strip with "opera" written in chocolate across the top.
While Jeanne Calment no longer holds her "world's oldest" title -- that honor goes to the still-breathing, 126-year-old Elizabeth Israel of Portsmouth in the Caribbean -- Calment's diet remains first in my book: Israel attributes her longevity to eating only organic food, whereas Calment has been quoted as saying on her death bed, "I grabbed pleasure where I could."
Those are fine words to live -- and eat -- by.
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