By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
I have written about food professionally for 25 years and don’t understand the allure of the most popular meals in America. I’m talking about fast food, American style: burgers about as flavorful as the Styrofoam they’re packaged in, plopped in a pasty bun, with chemically adulterated fries on the side. I find it revolting, and dislike being stuck in traffic downwind from junk food places that reek of cooking oil and artificial additives.
But we are a time-obsessed culture and we need speed, you might protest. Sorry, no excuse, because in other cultures they have found ways to dine very well on fresh food that is available quickly.
Asian stir-fries can be knocked together in mere moments, an English pub can put together a Ploughman’s Lunch as fast as they can slice the cheese, and I would crawl past a dozen McDonalds to get a good street taco. And in their own special category, there are the French. It’s a cuisine famous for long, leisurely dinners, but they can knock together a good breakfast or lunch tout de suite.
The Champagne French Bakery Café chain exists to fill this niche locally, serving quiches, crepes, omelets, sandwiches, salads and soups that are freshly made but fast. On my first visit to the Mar Vista location on National Boulevard I was in a hurry but lost precious minutes being paralyzed by indecision – I wanted to dine sensibly, but it’s hard to order something healthy while you are standing by a bakery case full of pastries.
My mind was made up when I noticed an item that is a joke in my household – the croque monsieur. My brother’s family ate a lot of this variation of a grilled ham and cheese sandwich when they went for a two-week vacation in Southern France, because it was one of the few things they knew how to order. Any time a language barrier was a problem in a café, they always had one thing they knew they liked, and it remains one of their favorite snacks to this day.
To be a proper croque monsieur, it has to be made with pan de mie, a slightly sweet milk-based bread, made with thin-sliced ham and a dab of mustard, and be topped with Gruyere cheese and béchamel sauce and broiled. Champagne got everything right – this is grilled cheese for grownups, with hints of nutmeg and pepper adding savory elements to the mix. It was offered as a $9 combo with salad or a cup of tomato-basil or French onion soup. French onion would have meant more melted cheese along with a sandwich that had plenty of that commodity, but the tomato-basil was the perfect complement.
I finished with a delightful little berry tart and a cup of iced tea and left the place with a spring in my step. The total was 16 bucks for everything – perhaps twice the cost of an American-style junk food meal, but at least four times better.
I returned a few days later to try a different combination – the chicken salad croissant and French onion soup. Good croissants are hard to find in Los Angeles; one often runs across beautiful pastries that promise that crisp exterior and buttery flavor, but are soft and bready. Champagne’s were better than average but short of brilliant – they had the flavor, but were a bit too soft. I wouldn’t eat one all by itself, but it was fine for a sandwich when stuffed with gently curried chicken salad, lettuce and tomato.
The French onion soup that accompanied it had the proper melted cheese crust and was very good thanks to a beefy, “oniony” stock that would have been good all by itself. With a cup of strong Lavazza coffee, lunch was a mere $12.
At both meals it took less than 10 minutes from ordering to the arrival of food at my table, and I could have been in and out in half an hour had I not wanted to linger over my beverage soaking up the relaxed atmosphere of a civilized café. The only thing that could have made it better was if Champagne served champagne, but alas, I shall have to make due with coffee. I will be back to sample my way through the menu. This is my go-to place for when my time is limited but my appetite for good food is not.
Champagne Bakery Café is at 11709 National Blvd., corner of Barrington Avenue in Mar Vista. Open daily 6:30 a.m. – 8 p.m., parking in adjacent lot, children welcome. Menu at champagnebakery.com. 310-231-9700.