On the advice of several good friends, I decided to check out what apparently is a Cuyahoga Falls institution, The French Coffee Shop. From the limited research I did before going to the restaurant, they have easily been around for forty years and have had several locations and several owners. Apparently the succession of owners has not lessened the quality of the food as one might suspect. While my friends hadn't gone in a while, my online searching yielded comments from a number of people on various forums, all of which was recent and positive. The one universal sentiment that nearly every single person mentioned, including my friends, was the requirement to have the French onion soup gratinee.
With camera in hand, I pulled into the parking lot for The French Coffee Shop. Here is the sign as you see it from Bailey Road:
I arrived at 12:35 PM today for lunch only to find the parking lot almost entirely filled. Figuring that a forty-year-old restaurant that can still pull in this kind of crowd for a mid-week lunch was probably a very good thing, I finally found a parking spot close to the road and approached the exterior of the restaurant (which is part of a long strip mall type of building). Here is a picture of the front of the restaurant:
While almost all of the reviews praised the French onion soup, there were also quite a few negative comments about the decor, calling it old and outdated. The interior is decorated simply with a few framed photographs of Parisian landmarks hanging on some of the walls. Other walls have been decorated with simple frescos painted to give an almost impressionistic feeling:
After noticing the interior decor, I fixed my gaze on the daily dessert specials, detailed on an erasable chalk board:
While it was busy, there were still a number of open tables and it didn't take long for my server to seat me and hand me a menu. Here is a shot of the front of the menu:
Note the address, phone number, and hours of operation are all listed on the front of the menu. Alas, no website is available on the Internet. While helpful, and certainly not the only menu where I have seen this information listed, if I am already sitting in the restaurant waiting to place my order, why list that information here? But, I digress.
Since there is almost no information on the web about the contents of the menu, I took photographs of the various panels. Unfortunately, I forgot to get a shot of the back panel which lists beverages. Here is a succession of panel shots:
A couple of things to note. First, The French Coffee Shop has a very limited beer and wine selection, but they do serve it during the day. A gentleman seated at the table next to me had a bottle of Budweiser with his lunch. Second, soft drinks are limited to one free refill. After that, they are extra. Third, several items on the menu are listed as homemade; the French bread, the French mayonnaise, and the French onion soup. Determined to try all three, I started scanning the menu for my best option.
While most of the items on the menu are roughly $4-$6, making them an excellent value, the Creamed Chicken Crepe Gratinee was $7.75 and came with the bread, the soup, and the entree which contained one of their crepes. Score! Unfortunately, the entree I ordered didn't normally come with the French mayonnaise that was being advertised on the menu (probably a better bet to get this would be to order a sandwich). Fortunately, for an extra $0.45, I could add a side of the mayonnaise to my order.
First up, the French onion soup gratinee:
The odd thing about this cup of soup is that it is served almost immediately after ordering it. If you look closely at the menu where the soup is listed, ordering a bowl instead of a cup can result in up to a twenty minute delay. After some questions were answered by my server, it seems that they go through so much of the cups of this soup at service that they are just constantly in the process of making these, whether there is an actual order for it in or not. When a bowl of soup is ordered, they have to start the entire process from scratch. To be honest, gentle reader, I can't imagine it taking twenty minutes to portion out an already prepared and held onion soup, place an already toasted crouton (we'll get to that more in a minute) on top of the soup, add a handful of Swiss cheese and run it under the Salamander. But, ok, whatever.
The soup itself was nice. It had a gentle onion flavor and wasn't too heavy like some beef stock versions tend to be. The cheese was nicely melted and caramelized in spots on the top. The only real downer for me was the "crouton". To me, a crouton is bread that has been toasted, usually day old bread. Which is really what you need to stand up to all of that liquid. Sadly, all of the immersed bread had been completely water-logged and was a soggy mess. I'm going to venture a guess and say that either the bread was very lightly toasted or not toasted at all. As I continued to eat my soup, I noticed small black flecks in the soup, bigger than ground pepper, almost similar in size to poppy seeds. Curious as to what these were, I asked my server about this and here was the conversation we had:
"May I ask you a question about the soup? What are the small black flecks?"
"It's celery seed. But that's supposed to be a secret."
Well, I guess it was a secret. Isn't it amazing what people will tell you when you simply ask them? I tasted the last bit of soup in my bowl again, this time making sure I had a number of the seeds on the spoon. I don't think I would've guessed the mystery ingredient on taste alone as the flavor was quite subtle. However, the same celery seeds showed up in the homemade mayonnaise and were much more pronounced:
As a favor, my server brought me a small handful of the DanDee potato chips that they serve with the sandwiches. She said that people like to dip their chips in the mayonnaise. When I first saw that they were serving "French Mayonnaise," I had to ask what differentiated the "French" from the regular. Thinking it might be an aioli of some kind, my server responded that it was homemade mayonnaise that had mustard in it. She was right, it definitely had mustard in it. In fact, it tasted much like the creamy base for a mustard potato salad one might find at the local supermarket. The appearance of the small black flecks was the second time that the celery seeds made an appearance. This time around they added a decidedly celery-esque flavor. While the mayonnaise was flavorful and would make an excellent spread on any of their sandwiches, as a dip, it was a bit too lumpy. The cook who prepared this had added so much oil during the emulsification stage that the mayonnaise went from smooth and creamy to lumpy and gelatinous. The mouth feel was creamy and smooth, however.
Shortly after finishing up my soup (and no, I didn't eat that entire cup of mayonnaise), my entree arrived:
The menu said that the gratineed cheese was only Swiss, but having had the same cheese on the soup, I think there might have been something else in this mix, too, like Parmesan. At the right end of the platter, a pool of oil collected. At first I thought it might be butter, but upon tasting it with a bit of bread, it lacked the heady richness of butter:
The strange thing about the cheese in this dish was that it was crispy, almost like the layer of caramelized sugar of a good creme brulee. The caramelized cheese on the soup was wholly different. Plus, the crispy cheese had a slightly different flavor to it as well. After eating and peeling back some of the cheese layer, the creamed chicken made its appearance:
The chicken breast was quite good. It was clear that it had been cooked ahead of time, seared on a flattop or in a pan until it was cooked all the way through. It was then sliced and shingled amongst a too generous portion of bechamel sauce on top of the savory crepe, covered with a lot of cheese and gratineed under the Salamander (think professional broiler). The chicken had a nice flavor, but was just slightly dry, even with all of the bechamel sauce available. The crepe however, was simply marvelous. Completely tender and cooked perfectly, I would honestly say that it was the star of the dish. While overall I thought that the dish did work, the next time I return to the restaurant, it will be to get something else with one of these wonderful crepes in it.
Finally, accompanying the platter was a slice of their homemade French bread:
And a shot of the crust:
I believe this was homemade. In fact, I'll even give them the benefit of the doubt that not only was it homemade, but it wasn't made from a pre-bought mix. That being said, the flavor of this bread was completely unremarkable. The pale crust added no flavor or complexity to the bread's taste. The interior, while fresh and soft, had little elasticity to the crumb. This was nothing like what a good French bread should taste like. This bread was made to pander to the masses of untrained American palates. Perhaps this recipe was handed down from owner to owner, but this was one tradition that should be revised if for no other reason than because they are billing it on the menu with some fanfare.
Overall, I enjoyed my visit today to The French Coffee Shop. While I had a few items on the menu that gave me pause, the majority of the flavors were good to excellent. I think on my next visit, I'm going to focus on crepes, savory and sweet.