French Pizza?

Café de L’Opera

910 J Street #1, East Village

A funny thing happened on the way to the opera. Hank and I had headed downtown for some lunch. But he couldn't find a parking spot. Dropped me off by the Sandford Hotel at Fifth and A. That's when I spot this place. New! French! Ópera, Patisseries Fines. Can't be too much beyond my budget, up here. I step right across Fifth into a, wow, pistachio-green room. Pistachio-green walls and ceiling, and a black marble floor. That new-with-old thing is everywhere. Track lighting surrounds a great antique chandelier, and cute modernish metal tables and chairs border red velvet furniture that looks as if, maybe, Louis XV could have sat here. Louis Cans, as we said in French class.

Classy is what it is, with all sorts and shapes of breads on display, bottles of olive oil, food art on the walls, and, in the one big glass-and-steel display cabinet that runs half the length of the room, the most exquisite pastries and chocolate and Lord knows what other kinds of cookies you've ever seen, in this life, anyway. They're talking directly to me. Help us! Get us out of here!

I force myself to look at the markerboard menus above. French pizzas -- small square ones -- ciabatta, that rough-bread sandwich deal, quiches, and oh yes: croques, melted-cheese sandwiches with ham and eggs.

But I've decided I've got to start with the breakfast thing. Because -- oh yeah -- there in the display case, they have their home-baked croissant stuffed with chocolate. I ask this real-life Parisian gal Gabrielle for that ($2.25) and a medium coffee ($1.75, no refills). Keep me going while I watch out for Hank. Man. You can tell they make their own croissants. Soft, buttery. The chocolate is strong. No better way to start the day.

So I'm sitting here, watching crazy-coiffed babes stream up from the Paul Mitchell hair school when hey! Talk of beauties and the beast: Here's Hank.

"Walked miles. I'm pooped," he croaks.

"Don't have a cow, have a croque, dude," I say. "That'll crank you up."

I want both: to check out these French pizzas, but also the croque monsieurs and croque madames, which I love. And to my surprise, Hank doesn't fight me on this. "Fine," he says. "Gimme a croque, m'sieur." He looks up at the board. "I'll take the ham." Except it's not just ham. He's pointing to the Black Forest ham and Gruyère and smoked Gouda cheese and peppered turkey croque ($5.50). Charlotte, a second cute Parisienne, who's behind the counter, sets that croque a-cookin', while Romi, the third gal, puts my square fromage blanc, onion, and bacon pizza into the Blodgett oven. It's on special today at $6.

It comes out sizzling and dripping with cheeses. Romi rushes it over to the counter. She adds an arugula-type salad, then a dressing, and brings it all out.

I want to not like it. I mean, French pizza? On the other hand, the simple combo of that rich white cheese and the onion and bacon is pretty delicious. Goes with the coffee too.

Thierry, the owner and chef, comes around, seeing how everybody's doing. Turns out he was executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, L'Orangerie in L.A., and Paradise Point here in San Diego. It was after 9/11, when the business and tourist travel dropped to almost zero, that he had to let go his pastry staff and outsource for desserts.

Then he let himself go.

"I found there was a real gap in the market. What was out there wasn't that good." So Thierry, who had also specialized as a pastry chef, started up a wholesale business, based in Kearny Mesa, that now makes pastries for high-end places as far away as Mandalay Bay and the Venetian in Vegas. Wow. Ópera is almost an afterthought.

Andrea, the office-worker gal at the next table, says her six-buck prosciutto ciabatta is pretty good stuff. "But I knew it would be good when I first saw this place," she says. "It looked European. I am European, from Romania."

"Here, man, take this." Hank hands me half of his croque. The Gouda covering it is still hot. "Not Gouda-nuff for you?" I ask.

"No, man. Nothin' wrong with it. And cheese ain't the problem. I'm just watching my carbs is all."

Me, on the other hand, I lose control, big time. In addition to my own food, I eat Hank's extra stuff, and then, well, they have all those beautifully sculpted pastries, tea cakes, cheesecakes, chocolate truffles...Gimme some credit: I resist all except, uh, five of the French macaroons. Not the big heavy tooth-cracking coconut macaroons I remember from my childhood. These are delicate, golf-ball-size, almond-based cookies sandwiched around cappuccino, chocolate ganache, pecan-caramel, cinnamon, and raspberry marmalade fillings. Thierry says these exact cookies have been around since 1533, when Italian Catherine de Medici married King Francis II and brought her recipe and chefs with her to France.

They're 65 cents each, so we're talking $3.25.

I bite into the cappuccino flavor. Oh yes. The lightest crunch-through, the slurp of coffee, the moment of mental miasma -- then the guilt.

"Well, the way I look at it," says Thierry, "is it's bad ingredients that damage you. I see myself as a missionary of life. We need to enjoy the moment! Escoffier said, 'Good eating is the real foundation of true happiness.' Uh, try the pecan-caramel. With coffee, perfection."

Sigh. I take a deep breath. Hank shakes his head. I bite in.

I tell you, it's a conspiracy. The French are taking over the world, one sweet tooth at a time. On the other hand, what a way to go.

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