French Hen and Chez Arnaud offer Parisian charms
Arnaud's desserts, like the Perigord, berry tartlet, and madeleines, emphasize artful and flawless execution. Chez Arnaud: Take the tour...
Benjamin Carter Grimes
It was Cole Porter who many years ago, via the lyrics of the musical Can-Can, proclaimed his love of Paris in the springtime, and it's still the season everyone says is best for a visit to the City of Light. It may sound purely poetic, but the reasoning behind this advice is a little more practical: Spring is the pre-tourist season. Thus the city is less crowded, it's not so swelteringly hot, and prices have not yet mysteriously jumped on everything from baguettes to boat tours. Somehow I've only ever managed to be in Paris in the dead of winter, and although it can be a bit drab and the streets tend to be emptier, the city still maintains its ineffable magic. Besides, nothing has ever tasted better after a chilly day of walking around the Marais district or taking it all in at the Musée d'Orsay than a simple brasserie meal of duck confit or blanquette de veau. Mmm ... maybe a paper cone of hot pomme frites — that actually might beat the duck. Now I've spiraled into a daydream, but regardless of the season, when lunchtime in Paris draws nigh, you'll know it. Suddenly every other impossibly chic person you see on the street is walking around with a ham sandwich. There's not much to them — usually just a buttered baguette, a few thin slices of ham, and sometimes a lacy piece of Swiss cheese — but the high-quality ingredients and simple salty flavor make the jamon-buerre sandwich the number-one midday meal in France, with over 2.2 million sold every day.
Accordion music and the pale, romantic coloring of Paris don't generally spring to mind when you think of St. Paul, Minnesota, but that's slowly changing with the addition of two new francophone eateries. Both are small in stature but big on je ne sais quoi, and as we enter the true depths of winter we could all use a little of that, non?
The first of these cafes is French Hen, smack in the center of the Selby-Dale area and connected to a gorgeous flower shop appropriately called Fleur de Lis. The storefront was formerly home to another Frenchy brunch place called Bon Vie (which moved just down the road), a personal landmark in my life as the site of the most perfectly poached egg I've ever had. French Hen has changed things up a bit in the interior, but the tradition of good eggs is still strong here, starting with the good eggs who are running the kitchen by blending an evident mastery of French basics with a touch of southern American comfort food. The generous plate of crusty yet fluffy biscuits smothered in spicy andouille sausage gravy is the frontrunner for my favorite breakfast at French Hen (and maybe in my top three biscuits and gravy in town). Get it with a side of root vegetable hash and two over-easy eggs and you'll be sitting pretty. If you like something a little sweeter but still indulgent for weekend brunch, go for the traditional crepe. It was a little thicker than I usually like, but only to make a sturdier vessel for the fresh peach and blackberry filling and dollops of whipped cream. At lunch French Hen serves a big, bountiful salad Nicoise with snappy blanched haricot vert; stringy, gooey, cheese-topped French onion soup; a decent roast beef sandwich with sweet peppers and plenty of au jus; and the staple of any good Frenchy lunchy place, the croque monsieur, smartly made with Dijon in the bechamel.
The only thing missing from the charming brunch experience here is a bottomless mimosa. Luckily French Hen has a BYOB policy, and the excellent Solo Vino wine shop is right across the street, so you can pick up your own bottle of bubbly, order a glass of blood orange juice (yup, French Hen has it), and mix it just how you like. Oh, and the coffee's good too — very important in a brunch joint.
If you've saved enough room for dessert, head just a hop, skip, and a jump west to Chez Arnaud (French Hen does have a pastry case, but it's worth going to a second location for real-deal patisserie). It's the latest outpost in a small chain of French bakeries, with other stores in White Bear Lake and Maple Grove. This third location has gutsily set up within spitting distance of stalwart bakery Wuollet's, but their styles are very different. For one thing, part of Chez Arnaud's model is that in addition to selling an array of French confections, it is also a boulangerie, a shop that specializes in making bread. Chez Arnaud does sell individual baguettes (which are absolutely on a par with Rustica's), brioche, and pain de Lodève, but it makes the most effective use of its boulangerie component by serving the simple sandwiches I waxed poetic about earlier. Smoky prosciutto and tangy blue cheese are complemented by a thin layer of honey-sweet fig jam on heavenly puffy, chewy ciabatta. Smoked salmon pairs with creamy cheese spread and cucumber. And Chez Arnaud also sells the ubiquitous jamon-buerre, aptly called just "the Parisian," which does include a little cheese. There's no lettuce, no tomato, no mustard, and you won't miss any of it. It's all about the bread.
Another pleasant surprise was the spicy sausage quiche, with a flaky crust more akin to puff pastry than heavy pie dough. But the real reason you come to a place like Chez Arnaud is for patisserie, and theirs is the real deal. Underneath the glass and lights of the display case, the exquisite French desserts are positively resplendent displayed on gold, mirrored plates. When it comes to confection and patisserie, Arnaud emphasizes appearance and flawless execution, both of which are evident in desserts like the Nun (black-and-white, chocolate-coated pâte à choux puffs stacked two high and filled with cream and more dense chocolate), the Perigord (a sort of layered parfait of vanilla cream, chocolate mousse, pieces of rich and chewy chocolate cake, and fresh raspberries), and the epic Le Grande Macaron. Food & Wine magazine's Gail Simmons recently mused that if she could come back as any one item, it would be a macaron, and Chez Arnaud's is one deserving of reincarnation. It's roughly the size of one of those chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwiches, but much more elegant and ethereal. The ground-almond cookies are tinted pale lavender or mint green and layered with thick cream and blackberries or raspberries. It's a little hard to eat, but once you bust into it, it's sweet, ethereal, and the epitome of spoiling yourself. Chez Arnaud does smaller, more traditional versions in flavors like champagne, pink lemonade, rosewater, and pistachio. It also makes eclairs, Napoleons, and Italian meringue tartlets. Of course, no French bakery would be complete without madeleines, which you can get here as a single on the side of your latte or take home by the dozen.
So maybe you can't get all the way to Paris by springtime, but if you can at least get to St. Paul this winter you'll be handsomely rewarded with rich and luxurious French food.
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