Pardon My French, Volnay Bistro bring Paris to the Twin Cities

Tray bien: The desserts of Pardon My French
Alma Guzman

There are things the French should probably apologize for: their haze of cigarette smoke, their stubborn labor strikes, their silly poodle haircuts. But with the exception of a few stinky cheeses, French cuisine will always be welcome, especially at two new Twin Cities eateries, Pardon My French and Volnay Bistro.

Pardon My French is located exactly where it doesn't seem to belong—which is, I suppose, precisely why it's right where it should be. It's an authentic, bona fide, French-owned bakery-cafe dropped into the middle of a suburban strip mall, between a dry cleaner and a Jiffy Lube. The chef-owner, Frédéric Klein, is a French native who came to Minnesota to work for his half-brother, Patrick Bernet, chef-owner of Patrick's Bakery & Cafe. After spending several years as Patrick's executive pastry chef, Klein partnered with his wife, Chrystel, a French transplant and Patrick's customer, to open Pardon My French last fall. If you have trouble finding the cafe—the city has some puzzling signage regulations—head for the storefront with the lacy pattern in the windows and the iconic rooster above the door.

Inside the sunny cafe, the walls are painted in taupe, gold, and moss-green hues. A central fireplace, couch, and coffee table stacked with board games make the place resemble a wealthy suburbanite's living room—especially if in-home wine bars become the new man-room must-have. But the room's central focus is its large glass bakery cases, teeming with all manner of muffins, croissants, cookies, opera cakes, napoleons, fruit tarts, sandwiches, and éclairs. If you're feeling overwhelmed, the helpful staff will offer detailed descriptions of each item and forgive even the most egregious mispronunciations. (If you'd like to brush up your language skills, a French conversation group meets Sundays at 3 p.m.)

I'd recommend beginning with the dessert case, whose contents looked so perfect that at first I feared I'd stumbled on a food stylist's photo shoot. Might I bite into that pastry-cream-stuffed brioche only to spit out a mouthful of shaving cream? Thankfully, this stuff's the real deal—lots of items familiar to Patrick's fans, plus many others.

The pint-size feuillantine praline chocolate cake, for example, is a dark, inky round, as glossy as lacquer ware and topped with flakes of gold leaf. Its contents are as decadent as its looks are elegant: an almond sponge cake base topped with a praline wafer (it tastes something like a Pirouette cookie) and dark chocolate mousse. It's one of the best ways in town to satisfy a chocolate craving, curry favor, or beg forgiveness.

Yet as good as it is, I might be convinced to forgo chocolate for the almost too perfect passion-fruit cake, a bright-orange jewel topped with fresh raspberries and coated in a dewy apricot-sugar glaze. Its cinnamon-coconut sponge cake shell contains a duo of mousses, frothy vanilla and sweet-tart passion fruit. Each bite is like taking the world's briefest island vacation—a blast of searing sunshine and tropical sweetness. When I found out that Klein does catering and makes entire sheet cakes of this stuff, the first thing I did was flip open my calendar and start counting the days till my birthday.

One of the best things about Pardon My French is that the cafe's prices are so reasonable one might think that American dollars have been confused for Euros. Those glorious cakes I just described cost just $4.10 apiece. An apricot Danish costs $1.90. Two four-inch quiches cost $6.50. At lunch you can mix-and-match items such as the mini-quiche, a half-sandwich, half-salad, or cup of soup—two items for $6, three for $8.50. You can treat yourself to a pistachio macaroon or chocolate truffle for a dollar, or pick up an extravagant picnic for four for less than $40. I have no idea how the neighboring Subway is going to stay in business.

From the savory side, don't miss the tart flambé, Alsace's answer to the pizza. Its delicate, hand-rolled crust is floured on the bottom and topped with bacon, onion, and Klein's secret mixture of cheeses (tart flambés typically are made with crème fraîche or fromage blanc, and I suspect this one may include both, but Klein is keeping it a secret). The contrast between the delicacy of the crust and the richness of the ingredients is definitely worth the tart's 25-minute wait.

I also liked the hot ham and cheese croissant, which is toasted so that the cheeses melt into a pale, gooey Cheez Whiz, if that can be meant in a good way. The "revolutionary" roast beef sandwich might not deserve its hyperbolic modifier, but I did like its soft, chewy bun and thick, garlicky aioli. The sandwiches are served with a side salad or crudite, a lightly dressed, raw vegetable salad, which the staffer who helped me described as "French coleslaw." It's made with shredded carrot, cucumber, and white radish—an ingredient I couldn't immediately identify, which delighted me immensely. Who knew I might find food I didn't recognize in Eagan?

I'm glad I sampled many of Pardon My French's offerings, because if I'd tried only the chicken, tomato, and asparagus quiche, I might have left disappointed. It seemed to beg for one more ingredient...goat cheese or tarragon or something. (On the other hand, the leek and Brie quiche had delightfully pungent, grassy flavors.) Same with the latte (the coffee tasted burnt) and the chocolate croissant (it had about a third as much chocolate as I might have found satisfying).

But I'm very much looking forward to the elaborate ice cream desserts Klein plans to roll out in the next few weeks. He's already tested one called the Floating Island, a French marshmallow (they're more meringue-like and tend to melt in the mouth) bobbing in vanilla cream and drizzled with caramel. If it's as good as it sounds, we can say au revoir to Bridgeman's this summer.

WAYZATA IS ALREADY a proven market for French food, as the restaurant space at 331 Broadway, kitty-corner from Sunsets, housed Chez Foley and then Patrick's Bistro (owned by Patrick Bernet) before changing to Volnay Bistro a few months ago. In many ways, Volnay, which is named after a French town known for its Burgundies, doesn't feel so different from the space's previous incarnations. The cozy jewel box of a room has a full wall of wine bottles, fresh flowers on the tables, and large windows looking out at the patio where groups of ladies sit under large white umbrellas and sip Diet Coke out of glass bottles. In the evenings, Volnay tends to be a couples spot, but it also welcomes local families whose kids might already have their own iPhones and a taste for escargots in garlic butter.

The bistro has a vibe that's less romantic than energetic, between the clamor of the open kitchen—vents hum, plates clatter—and the efficient wait staff striding purposefully across the room. The restaurant feels classy but dialed back a notch, similar to the way the table linens are covered by sheets of white butcher paper. In the evening, Volnay is formal enough for an anniversary celebration, but during the day it's casual enough for spandex-wrapped cyclists to make an espresso stop.

The new owners are Patrick's former general manager, Steven Brown (not to be confused with Steven Brown the chef, this Steven Brown is a restaurant manager whose résumé includes Aquavit and D'Amico Cucina) and Liz Nolan, a longtime Wayzata resident and social linchpin. Brown and Nolan have two Frenchmen running Volnay's kitchen, having promoted Patrick's former sous chef Anthony Herve to head chef and hired Herve's culinary classmate, Cedric Goubil, to assist him.

During breakfast and lunch, Herve and Goubil stick to Patrick's successful formula of bistro classics, including omelets, quiches, salad Nicoise, and a French onion soup that lacks the usual overbearing molten cheese top. (The comforting menu attracts myriad regulars, Brown says, including some who dine at the restaurant three times a day.) I liked the curried chicken panini—a chicken breast with curry sauce tucked into a deliciously flaky walnut bread. It's a nice take on chicken salad, though I longed for a stronger sweet note for balance, perhaps more raisins in the bread, or a slather of chutney. My favorite daytime dish was the bouchée a la reine, also known as France's answer to the chicken potpie. It's made with a volcano-shaped vol-au-vent puff pastry filled with chicken, mushrooms, gnocchi-like dumplings, and an herb-flecked cream gravy. It's a rich, buttery delight, though my arteries would probably have preferred that I share it.

Dinner features more elegant fare, including pretty plates of filet mignon, pastry-wrapped sea bass, and veal chop gratinée. Seared foie gras shines when served with sweet bits of apple, golden raisins, caramelized mango, and an orange reduction. The scallops St. Jacques didn't pair quite as well with their port reduction cream sauce as they did with the accompanying mascarpone risotto, but, still, they were expertly cooked. While Herve and Goubil do some experimenting, they still nail the traditional dishes, such as a hearty beef Bourguignon, a red-wine-based stew fragrant with herbes de Provence.

A few of the desserts at Volnay are made in-house, including a daily crème brûlée and a caramelized pineapple Madagascar, but I tended to prefer the ones imported from Patrick's Bakery & Cafe. Several are nearly identical to those at Pardon My French—the chocolate and the passion fruit cakes are just as delicious as Frédéric Klein's, though marked up a few dollars. I'd also recommend Patrick's signature cheesecake, which has an almost panna cotta-like lightness and a raspberry puree in the base. Talk about just desserts. 

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