Pardon our French: French Meadow Bakery and Cafe

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I’m back from lunch sitting at my computer and it’s only 12:15. Was I that hungry well before noon? Well, always. But more to the point, was I smart? Walk into the French Meadow at twelve, and you’ll spend your lunch hour waiting for a table, that’s how popular this convivial bistro is. Has been, ever since day one, way back in 1985, when, unprepared for instant success, the owner made change out of a cigar box. With the day’s earnings she bought a cash register, and it hasn’t stopped ringing since.

French Meadow
2610 Lyndale Avenue S.
612-870-7855
www.frenchmeadow.com/cafe

Oh, the place has evolved, all right, along with its customers—back then, a sandaled, tie-dyed, counter-culture crowd. Today you’ll spot as many briefcases as backpacks among the folks scanning a menu that’s also expanded from vegan-or-else to include first, fish and chicken in pan-global flavors, and now bison and—better believe it—pulled pork. It remains natural and organic, it goes without saying, for healthful dining is still the working mantra here. It’s simply disguised as classy bistro food.

At night these days, a waitstaff serves the close-packed tables, set, when the sun goes down, with votive candles and jugs of posies to further soften the cozy atmosphere. Wine has been added, and it’s half-price on weeknights. At breakfast and lunch, you place your order at the counter before it’s delivered tableside. Providing you snagged a table.

I’m sixth in line by now, prime time for my usual panic attack: What-what-what to order, when I want it all? I settle (wisely, it turns out. Well, it always does.) on the Trois, a three-salad combo, perfect for those of us who count ourselves among the choosing-challenged.

On heavy diner china it arrives, and voila (I’ll toss in a little French because I’m among hip, artiste-type company here, as always): three scoops.

The egg salad, gently flavored with tarragon, holds the eggs’ whites in tiny dice, while the sunny yolks have been mashed to hold the scoop together—in other words, no cloying overload of mayo.

Same with the tuna variation, greened with chives and modest bits of celery; you’re enjoying fish, not filler. And how about that chicken number, born of a free-range bird and dressed with a hint of curry and crunch of almonds? Not bad, either. All are seasoned ever so subtly (as some would applaud—you actually taste the main attraction—while others are free to holler, “Punch it up!”).

Whatever. They rest on a jubilant bundle of micro-greens (just-born baby beet leaves, neo-natal spinach and such) glistening with a smooth and snappy vinaigrette. Three slices of gently-toasted baguette, baked from organic flour, complete the generous plate, yours for $8. And you can leave feeling smug about keeping your New Year’s resolution about eating healthfully.

Or not. It’s my moral duty to warn you of the contents of the bakery counter: a mile-high slice of chocolate fudge cake rippling with chocolate frosting; cappuccino torte made with espresso, buttercream frosting, and chocolate ganache; a regal tres leches cake; cheesecakes in flavors way-too-wicked to mention in a family newspaper; and an apple tarte tatin, served warm, with freshly whipped cream. I’m just sayin’.

Come back for dinner for more treats (entrees $14 for a tempeh number for hard-core vegans (there’s also a gluten-free menu), to $21 for profligates like me. I’m partial to the miso salmon, moist as grannie’s smooch, served on a comforter of garlic-infused Yukons, gently mashed, with sautéed rainbow chard, black sesame seeds for snap and wasabi to get your attention. There’s also a swell roast chicken and, these days of off the straight-and-narrow, a primo pork tenderloin.

If I were you, I’d pop for a starter, too (I’m just sayin’). Like the plump PEI mussels steamed in white wine with cilantro, tomatoes, green onions and a yoo-hoo of fresh ginger, yours to sop up with lengths of the bakery’s crusty baguette ($11).
Or make a light meal of the chicken-and-chevre pizza, $10 (count on the bakery for a fine crust). Or the roasted butternut squash–filled gnocchi, scattered with toasted walnuts and savory bits of Wisconsin’s St. Pete’s blue cheese, all resting on a cushion of snappy arugula. Another swell dish, and a bargain at $8.

The Meadow’s quesadilla has been on the menu since Day One. It’s a classic, built upon flour tortillas filled with black beans and (these days) chicken, along with mozz from Wisconsin, then garnished with house-made salsa, sour cream livened with chipotle, and guac, $9.

Talk about happy: Look for specials during the newly-launched happy hour, too.