French Crust Café offers an extended menu of bistro classics and jaunty bonhomie

J-Ro's latest represents everything that makes me an admirer of Monsieur de Cavel.

Nov 29, 2016 at 1:21 pm
click to enlarge French Crust’s quiche is one of the best in town — especially paired with a sparkling cocktail. - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
French Crust’s quiche is one of the best in town — especially paired with a sparkling cocktail.

French Crust Café and Bistro stands out among the restaurants Jean-Robert de Cavel opened this year as the best expression of the man himself. That’s not to suggest his heart isn’t in the upscale restaurant L downtown, or that there’s anything impersonal about Frenchie Fresh, his take on fast-casual dining in Norwood. I love both of those places — L for the opulent decor curated mostly by de Cavel’s partner, Richard Brown, and Frenchie Fresh for bringing creative, satisfying food into a desert of chain restaurants.

But French Crust represents everything that makes me an admirer of Monsieur de Cavel — known to all as Jean-Robert or simply J-Ro — while it rings all my bells as a lifelong Francophile. The new and expanded corner location at Elm and Elder streets (the former café was housed in a small space on Vine Street downtown) faces Findlay Market’s beer garden and main entrance, sits right on the streetcar line and will brighten anyone’s day thanks to expansive windows and Provence-yellow walls festooned with colorful posters and ceramics from de Cavel’s vast personal collection of très French memorabilia.

The effect is as jaunty and friendly as its owner. Patrons sit at booths, tables or at a 20-seat bar and soak up the bonhomie of a lively bistro ambiance. The food matches the surroundings and delivers note-perfect versions of dishes you’d expect for breakfast, brunch or lunch — a variety of quiches, sandwiches on croissant or baguette, omelets and, of course, a croque monsieur. At dinner, more bistro classics tempt diners, from appetizers of snails and beef tartare to mains ranging from duck leg confit to steak frites.

We went as a foursome for Sunday brunch at the bistro; luckily, I had made a reservation or we would have had to wait for a table. Behind the bistro, down a hall lined with de Cavel’s collection of salt-and-pepper shakers, is the smaller café, which features a case of meticulously crafted pastries. You can order from the full menu in either space.

I noticed the inviting, fully stocked bar right away and asked for a drinks list. Several house cocktails seem made for brunch. In addition to the standard mimosa and “Bloody Beauregard” ($9 each), several other sparkling-wine drinks beckon. Taking our server’s advice, I tried the Audrey ($10), fragrant with a bit of elderflower liqueur and orange. My husband had a delightful glass of Hugel Gentil ($9), a slightly off-dry blend of white grapes from Alsace, France. Our friends stuck with coffee ($1.75, with unlimited refills).     

The daytime menu contains sections such as Les Flat Croissants, Les Casseroles ‘Le Creuset,’ Le Petite Dejeuner and Viennoiserie. Don’t let that intimidate you if your French is rusty or non-existent, since the listings under each heading revert to English descriptions. There’s a lot of pastry-based food — hence the “Crust” in the restaurant’s name — by pastry chef Jean Philippe Solnom, who clearly knows how to handle butter and flour. But the gluten-averse can eat here, too, by staying with one of the soups (two sizes, from $3.95-$8) or hefty salads boasting high-quality ingredients such as shrimp with avocado, apple with walnuts and Gruyere cheese or duck leg confit with bacon and poached egg ($11.50-$12.50).

Our table mostly went with the pastries, although my husband selected the omelet du jour ($9), made with avocado, shrimp and herbs. Omelets come with soup or salad, and he had a cup of the day’s special butternut squash soup. The eggs were as fluffy and well-seasoned as you would hope, and the creamy soup tasted like autumn in a bowl. I had a cup of it, too, as a side with my goat cheese, zucchini and tomato quiche ($10.50). You won’t find a better slice of egg pie anywhere else in this town. Not only was the crust a textbook example of short pastry done right, but the filling also balanced the custard with bits of veggies and creamy cheese. Along with the soup, the portions were just right for a midday meal.

Our friends headed to croissant territory: Susan had the scrambled eggs open-faced on a croissant ($9.50) and John ordered the French Croissant Perdu ($7.50). Her scrambled eggs plate came out beautifully photo-ready, the prettiest dish of the meal. Dotted with diced asparagus, confit tomatoes and creamy goat cheese, the cottony eggs were pillowed on top of grilled croissant and accompanied by a fruit salad that included julienned apples and sliced grapes.

The croissant perdu, which roughly translates as “day-old bread,” had some of the same fruit salad but was a sweet dish, topped with cinnamon and honey. It was too sweet for my taste buds but not for his.

We lingered for quite awhile over refills of coffee and talked about the election, which was only about a week in the rear-view mirror. Our server shared the dinner menu, which branches out from the pastry-centric daytime fare. Nine hors d’oeuvres and 10 entrées, all just as French as the décor, beckon me back as soon as possible for another bistro meal in the shadow of our city’s wonderful Findlay Market.

French Crust Café and Bistro

GO: 202 W. Elder St., Over-the-Rhine; CALL: 513-621-2013; INTERNET: 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday-Thursday; 8 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5:30-8:30 p.m. Friday; 8 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5:30-9 p.m. Saturday.