Location: 443 Division St., Sewickley. 412-741-2388. www.cafedesamispa.com
Hours: Tue.-Thu. 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 8 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun. 9 a.m.-1:30 p.m.
Fare: Light French
Atmosphere: Rive Gauche
How to describe our latest restaurant outing? Well, remember that friend who spent a year (or a semester, or even a week) in France and came back smoking Gauloises and sprinkling her speech with little Frenchisms, kissing you hello on both cheeks and waxing nostalgic about the Parisian café lifestyle? Let's just say that after one dinner at Café des Amis, we became that person.
Located on a brick-paved alley that meets Sewickley's main drag at an eccentric -- even Gallic -- angle, Café des Amis is a striking visual simulacrum of a real French café, with rustic wooden tables, chalkboard menus, and display cases full of sophisticated salads, sandwiches and desserts. Most importantly, it isn't run by locals seeking to recreate their junior year abroad; it's run by a genuine Frenchman, Eric Assandri, with chef Rudolf Dietz who, despite his Germanic name, banters in French with Assandri. Their relaxed yet serious demeanor sets the vibe for the restaurant.
Until recently, the café was primarily a bakery that served breakfast and lunch, as well as a base of operations for catering. But now that it is offering dinners on Friday and Saturday nights, menu offerings have grown slightly more ambitious in service of the relaxed, multi-hour meal that is France's greatest export.
Or perhaps France's greatest achievement is really the food. After all, while modern American cooking owes little to the stuffy, painstaking haute cuisine of France's classical kitchens, its wellspring was in the simpler French traditions of fresh foods treated with great respect. Thus, when Chef Dietz puts slices of bacon in the midst of a brie-and-potato sandwich, he first trims it carefully, so that there's enough fat to flavor and crisp, but not so much that it dominates its fellows.
This kind of care pervades the menu, with each component of each dish prepared with attention to detail. But while nothing is slapped together, neither is anything offered with a side of affectation: When Angelique inquired after the missing egg in her salad, Chef Assandri shrugged and said, "I forgot." (He thoughtfully included one in our to-go container.)
The dinner experience is somewhere between a café counter and sit-down service; some dishes we got for ourselves from the counter, while others were delivered to our table. In true Continental fashion, the place was busier when we left at 8:30 in the evening than it had been when we arrived at 6.
Thanks to the café's lunchtime roots, dinner can be anything from croque monsieur, sort of a cross between French toast and grilled cheese with ham, to shepherd's pie or roulades of beef. Faced with such diversity, we ordered a lot, prompting Assandri to look behind us to see if there were more people in our party. The dishes we sampled ranged from good to magnifique, with only a few missteps standing between our meal and perfection. Even one sad, lifeless tomato is too many in a salad of spicy greens, and the duck confit, wrapped in a thin dough reminiscent of spring roll and broiled, was overwhelmed by the rice and cabbage (lovely and tender cabbage though it was) with which it was paired. Tomato-ginger soup tasted more of celery than of ginger.
But the onion soup was mellow and savory beneath a blanket of melted cheese, while nutmeg-seasoned béchamel sauce converted the croque into a rich, almost decadent treat. Sauteed scallops were sweet and succulent. Tartine du Mont Blanc, the aforementioned brie, bacon and potato sandwich on a split baguette, was a divine marriage of salty, smoky, creamy and earthy flavors, arriving frilled with crispy, browned cheese from the broiler. Smoked-salmon salad was delectably accented with sundried tomatoes, shaved parmesan and crispy croutons, and drizzled with balsamic vinegar. We only wish it had included more of its namesake ingredient in proportion to its heaping helping of greens.
Despite the many plates which crowded our table, portions were manageable, and we wisely saved room for the café's excellent desserts. Chocolate tart was as elemental as a high-cocoa-content chocolate bar melted and re-set in a pastry shell, while mousse au chocolat was a lighter affair, attracting our spoons again and again as if by magnetism.
If you live in Sewickley, lucky you -- Café des Amis is, literally, right up your alley. If you don't, run, don't walk, to the best Parisian café in Western Pennsylvania. But once you get there, take your time.
- Heather Mull