The French Market Café is ideal for a romantic rendezvous … or a modestly priced light lunch

By Richard Foss (

Abbot Kinney’s French Market Café transports diners to the south of France

Abbot Kinney’s French Market Café transports diners to the south of France

There’s a certain Internet site that asks people to rate the suitability of restaurants for different occasions — good for a family dinner, business lunch, et cetera. An imaginative person can come up with more interesting scenarios than they provide — good restaurants for making up after a fight, to debrief a spy, meet someone you don’t really want to talk to, or to take someone whose tastes are boring but where you can also find something you like.

To these admittedly specialized selections I can add another. The French Market Café is the perfect place to have brunch with your secret lover. It’s well back from the street on a section of Abbot Kinney without much foot traffic, so it’s unlikely that passing acquaintances will see you together. The place actually has a market, so if you do see someone you know it’s possible to duck behind a rack of gourmet food. While you’re hiding you can browse cured meats, canned fish, French condiments and other delights.

Having identified a potential clientele, I scanned the lunchtime crowd to see if I could identify any trysting couples. There was an interesting assortment of people around the leafy patio, most of whom were probably workers from nearby businesses, but also some families and solo diners. I went inside to check out the menu and order at the counter, where a cheerful Frenchwoman named Caroline explained the specials.

I didn’t have a secret lover available that day, so I took a friend (but we exchanged glances of smoldering passion just for practice). My companion and I ordered a bowl of Provencal fish soup, ratatouille and a daily special of an Alsace tart. Since the restaurant has a sign advertising espresso we each ordered coffee, and on a whim I ordered a Gavroche French red ale.

Gavroche was the heroic street kid in “Les Miserables,” and one might imagine him drinking a beer with his fellow outcasts despite being underage. This farmhouse-style aged ale was earthy with complex fruity notes, a beer to sip and savor. The coffee, alas, was not as good. We tried the Mexican organic and the hazelnut and found both to be very weak. Given that the French usually enjoy their coffee very strong, this was a surprise. I might order an espresso next time to get the jolt that I enjoy so much.

The fish soup was made traditionally, the seafood simmered with vegetables, wine and spices and then pureed to a creamy richness. This technique melds the flavors — it’s as much a vegetable soup with seafood overtones as a fish soup. The soup was served with toast rounds, shredded cheese and a dollop of rouille, a variation on garlic mayonnaise that contains lemon and a dash of chili. The flavors were multilayered, and it was the highlight of our meal.

This isn’t to say anything against the Alsace tart, a daily special I’d suggest be added to the regular menu. A crust like that of a pizza was topped with bacon, onions, Swiss cheese and a dash of nutmeg —  if there was anything else there, it was very subtle. This is a snack item in the north of France that is sometimes called a tarte flambée when made with a puff pastry crust, and it’s easy to see why it’s popular. The flavors are simple and direct, and when served with a fresh salad with herb vinaigrette, as happened here, it’s a great light meal.

I was a bit less happy with the ratatouille, an item for which I had high hopes. This dish is simple in concept — eggplant, onion, tomato and peppers sautéed with olive oil and Mediterranean herbs — so that any imbalance in the ingredients is apparent. In this case the bell pepper was too strong, a situation that sometimes happens because a batch of peppers has an unusually assertive flavor. It wasn’t inedible, but it wasn’t up to the standard of the rest of the cooking here.

The French Market Café is modestly priced for the area, with nothing on the menu much over $14, and it’s an idyllic hideaway, with wind whispering through the bamboo that screens it from the commercial buildings nearby. It’s a worthwhile stop for breakfast or lunch, regardless of whether any subterfuge need be involved.

French Market Café, 2321 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice (310) 577-9775