I've always marked the official beginning of summer by the last day of Vincent's Camelback Market.
Before the heat is on, one of my favorite weekend pastimes is heading there on Saturday mornings to buy cheese, some produce, and maybe a bottle of wine. I order a crepe or a piece of chocolate soufflé, then (if I'm lucky) snag an umbrella table. Sure, it's just a tiny farmers market in the parking lot of chef Vincent Guerithault's eponymous fine-dining establishment, but it's the best place for Phoenicians to dabble in the kind of leisurely lifestyle perfected by the French. Starting in late May, though, the weekly event goes on a lengthy hiatus.
I've eaten at Vincent's a couple of times it was wonderful but the place just isn't accessible. For most people, dining there is a special occasion, a luxurious, big-bucks event. But the market is a fun, casual place to visit even when I have only enough change for a cup of coffee. When it closes down for the summer, it means no more Vincent's.
Unless you know where to look.
A few years ago, playing on the success of the weekly market, Guerithault expanded and opened Vincent's Market Bistro, just behind the main restaurant. Inside, the place is as charming as a country cottage, and outside, there's a pretty patio bordered by boxes of geraniums. It has many of the amenities of the weekly market casual French fare and fresh pastries to eat in or take out, and a selection of imported gourmet ingredients for people willing to attempt Gallic cuisine in their own kitchens. And best of all, it's open for business all year long. But for as popular as the weekly market is, I'm surprised at how many people (besides the serious ladies-who-lunch set) still don't know about the bistro.
Indeed, it's the kind of tucked-away, can't-see-it-from-the-street place that you'd never notice unless you happened to be valeting your car at Vincent's. (Be aware that the parking situation here is awful, so unless you're lucky enough to find a spot in the lot, or squeeze your car onto the canal berm behind the property, be prepared to hand over your keys.) It's so tiny that you even have to walk to the main building to use the restroom. And it's so good that I want to eat there every day, all summer long.
Compared with its older, fancier sibling, the bistro is a steal. Most dishes are around seven or eight bucks, and many come with salads or sides. Even better, they come with a complimentary plate of warm croissants to nibble on, and as at the main restaurant, you may just be surprised with dessert like a slice of peach tart with raspberry sauce and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I'm careful to dine anonymously, so I was momentarily freaked out on a recent visit, when the waiter unexpectedly brought dessert for my whole table.
"Oh, no I hope I didn't blow my cover . . ." I whispered to my friends as he headed back to the counter to get us a round of coffee.
No such thing, as it turns out. On subsequent visits, I noticed that everybody got dessert, and sometimes even a little extra. Once they sent us home with packets of mini macadamia nut cookies, and another time, they handed us sampler lunch boxes to promote their new delivery service (cheekily called "Vincent's Van Go"). On top of all that, service was friendly and courteous, just as professional as what you'd expect next door.
During the week, Vincent's Market Bistro serves breakfast, lunch, and early dinner; the weekends are all about brunch. There's a good amount of menu crossover, too, so you can order an omelet at lunch, or housemade pasta at brunch. Specials of the day are written on a small chalkboard, and in the evening, there's a rotating list of featured dishes.
I loved the lightness of some of the dishes. Pissaladière a flaky tart piled with sweet, slightly caramelized onions was balanced out with a heap of fresh greens tossed in red wine vinaigrette. Grilled salmon, embellished with black olive tapenade, and a special of the day with two perfectly cooked little lamb chops, came with nice salads, as well. The portions were just enough to make my friends and me feel full without going overboard. (So rare these days.)
Meanwhile, the Victory Farms vegetable plate was big enough to qualify as an entree, with mixed greens, asparagus, beets, grape tomatoes, and haricots verts. It sounds almost too simple, but it was one of the best salads I've had in a while. The smoked salmon quesadilla was also a generous serving, although the addition of dill and horseradish cream made it taste summery, not heavy. Even a fat, fluffy omelet customized with chicken, mushrooms, and onions seemed more refreshing with a handful of cool diced tomatoes and shreds of fresh basil.
The tartiflette was at the absolute opposite end of the richness spectrum, with layers of potatoes, Reblochon cheese, bacon, ham, and onions baked into a ceramic crock. Good thing it was a tiny one, because it filled me up quickly. The signature coq au vin Sonoma free-range chicken cooked in a sauce of onions, mushrooms, and red wine was another fortifying dish, especially with a pile of mashed potatoes. And a creamy, garlicky side of gratin Dauphinois made the rosemary-scented roasted chicken, slathered in cream-fortified gravy, seem almost naughty.
And you know what? Sometimes that's exactly what I'm hungry for, summer be damned.
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