In my fantasy world, Cincinnati is littered with cozy European cafés offering simple food and an eclectic experience, so I was eagerly anticipating my visit to Café de Paris.
The restaurant's newest site in Hyde Park offers dinner as well as lunch and breakfast menus similar to the current downtown location, with selections such as Salade Niçoise ($5-$6) and Croissant Foure aux Epinards (toasted croissant with spinach and feta, $5).
Heading out for dinner, my friend and I found that we had certain expectations of a French café: one being that it would be packed on a Friday night, the other that we'd share a bottle of wine. The lack of the second might have produced the shortage of the first. When we arrived, company in the dining room was sparse at best, but owner Khaled Atallah greeted us with a hearty "Bonsoir!" and remained charming and quite French throughout our meal.
A glance at the café's menu makes it obvious the food isn't classically French. Like many of his peers, Atallah embraces fusion. In his case, it's French and Mediterranean, a choice based on historic events as much as culinary taste.
"The French colonized Algiers for 132 years," he explains, "and gave all that time to blend the cuisine."
Dinner options include salads, appetizers, soups and entrées that come with a choice of two sides: couscous with steamed vegetables and a gingery red sauce or grilled and sautéed portabella mushrooms, pommes frites (potatoes), zucchini, eggplant and peppers.
My friend and I started with Shlita ($4.50), grilled roasted sweet peppers, tomatoes and milled piquant peppers sautéed in olive oil and a bowl of Hummus ($4.50). She coveted the last bite of the smoky-flavored pepper dish. And since good manners were in the air, I didn't fight her for it. The only thing the dish lacked was a complimentary side of baguette for scooping. (You can order a side of bread separately for $2.50.) The hummus was good and lemony, covered under a thin layer of olive oil and served with slices of warmed pita.
For entrées we selected Saumon Grillé au Citron et Sauté aux Herbes Beurre (lemon grilled salmon sautéed with herbs) ($19.95) and the Escalope de Boeuf Grillée au Cumin (grilled beef strip loin with cumin, $19.95). A coworker had warned me that the menu was in French and thought the idea might be off-putting to customers, but I found it quaint and wasn't intimidated since a translation is included and our host graciously answered our questions.
The plate presentation was simple, no towers of food to climb over and just a dusting of parsley on the edge of the plates. My friend, who has vacationed in Paris, approved, noting a similar trend in the cafés in the City of Lights.
The food itself was simple and hearty. We were both amazed at the size of the salmon filet my friend was served. It had a light lemon flavor, but it (as well as the couscous) needed salt.
The couscous, a welcome change to typical side dishes, was the topic du jour. Atallah told her to ladle the ginger sauce over the mound liberally because the semonila would absorb all she would give. The beef-based broth was zippy with the fresh accent of ginger, and we found ourselves dipping slices of the baguette in the leftovers.
The vegetable side with my steak was also a winner. The slices fanned out along the plate edge like an edible deck of cards. The pommes frites, tossed with sautéed tomato and loads of good garlic, was the best. My steak, however, was our least favorite dish of the evening; it was a little tough even though the flavor was good.
We rounded out the meal with dessert and coffee like civilized people. I must admit not imbibing at a French café seems a little like blasphemy, but what Café de Paris lacks in a liquor license it makes up for it in the coffee department, which includes espresso, mochas, lattes and cappuccino as well as hot chocolate and hot teas.
The dessert selection emphasizes the Mediterranean side of the cuisine (and Atallah's love of almonds). We tried both of the evening's offerings — Pain aux Amandes (almond bread) and Nid d'Oiseaux (bird's nest) ($2.50 each). The shredded phyllo of the bird's nest hid a delicious base of almond paste; the other treat was cake-like, oozing honey and the tastes of rose water and almond.
While some of our expectations weren't met — a large, gratis portion of bread, wine and a chocolate dessert option — the simply prepared food and warm charm of the owner and staff definitely created a satisfying dining experience.
To me, an independent restaurant should be an expression of the owner's personality and vision. That vision might not always meet my initial expectations, but the good ones still create a lasting impression. ©
Café de Paris
Go: 3514 Erie Ave., Hyde Park
Hours: Breakfast and lunch: 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m., dinner: 5-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Check for Sunday brunch hours in the near future.
Prices: Moderate to pricey
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Seafood, chicken and vegetarian options
Accessibility: Fully accessible