The siren call of Café Bleu

Whew. Just hiked up West Washington from the Washington Street trolley. Quite a climb. Crazy traffic. No sidewalk.

Then I spot this beautiful li’l French bistro. I know I shouldn’t go in. Too sophisticated, too damned attractive, too upmarket.

But, Café Bleu calls like a siren. People look so cozy. Wine glowing red in winking glasses, sounds of laughter, but not barroom laughter. I’m trying to read the menu they’ve stuck up on the window. Ayee... Entrées around $16–$20. But, hey, only live once. Gotta be a way of skating ’round the edges.

So, I haul the door open, privately give myself a max of $20, take a deep breath, and head in.

The five-stool bar is all but taken — the one seat that’s empty is squished between two other people — so I sit down at the nearest table. Round. Nicely polished solid wood, with matching curved wooden chairs. Classy. This place is intimate, comfortable, and it has that thing. That French thing. Dunno how else to say it. There’s the name, of course — Café Bleu — and the wall of wine, the fat candles glowing in sconces on maroon walls, the three-lamp chandeliers, the dark-plank floor, the cool little table candles in cut-out metal containers, the long-aproned waiters... And people seem to respond. Couples lean into each other to exchange, “Do you remember when…?” jokes, the men seem more flamboyant here than in other eateries, the women have more life in their eyes. They use their hands and arms more.

I’m thinking all this as I’m head-down in the menu. It’s 7:30 now. Happy hour finished at 6:00. Pity. That’s when they have $6 brie cheese “en croute,” a mushroom vol-au-vent for $6; mussels for $8, a $9 bleu burger, and $5 wines.

But now? I’m seeing that the bleu burger — a half-pound of all-natural Kobe beef — is $10.95. That’s not a bad mark-up for prime time. And that’s with fries (French, of course) included, unlike, say, at Burger Lounge, where you pay $3–$4 extra for the little pomme de terre sticks. Figure it’s $11–$12 there.

But who comes to a French outpost to have American food? I keep scanning. Oh, man. Coq au vin. “Café Bleu’s signature dish…classic French specialty of wine-braised chicken with chef’s house-smoked pork belly, crimini mushrooms, pearl onions, Yukon potato gratin.” It’s, uh, $13.95.

What I end up with costs even more, because I can’t resist the French onion soup (six bucks), and steak tartare. We’re talking raw steak, “knife-cut, all natural filet mignon, fresh herbs, shallots, soy and lime juice, crostini, balsamic reduction, parsley, $8.95.”

Drinkwise, I resist all temptation and just have iced water. (I know, French restaurant, no wine?)

I’m really impressed with how much I get. Plus, Javier, the waiter and one of the owners, comes around with a small plate with a golden mound in the middle. I see he’s also done this with the table behind me.

“Compliments of the chef,” he says. “An ‘amuse bouche’ — a taste tickler: braised beef in pastry topped with Dijon mustard and fine herbs.”

It’s a nice, herby ball, with crisp, thin pastry outside and sausage meat inside. It sure does tickle my taste buds. And, free’s good.

I can’t resist the French onion soup (six bucks) and steak tartare. We’re talking raw steak, “knife-cut, all natural filet mignon.”

I can’t resist the French onion soup (six bucks) and steak tartare. We’re talking raw steak, “knife-cut, all natural filet mignon.”

Then, you want my opinion? This is flat-out the best French onion soup in town. It comes in a curly little brown ceramic bowl with a thick skin of golden, slightly burnt cheese covering the top. The reef of grilled cheese, the slurry of onions, the taste of lots of sweetish wine in the soup all make beautiful music. Javier brought me a baguette, too, with butter and a bowl of a kind of Caprese tomato-parsley mix. Great for contrast and great for dunking into the way-hot little cauldron.

It’s filling — almost. So, the plate of steak tartare is a good add. It has these crostinis, hard-baked baguette slices served on the side; a round, upright barrel of raw meat, lots of chopped green herbs sticking out of the mound, and a little puddle of…blood at the bottom? Well, it’s probably sauce. And, yes, it’s modest enough. Javier warned me it was only three ounces of meat.

But there’s more to it than you’d think. It’s substantial. And tasty. I get the raw-meat taste, but the flavor mainly comes from vinegary capers, herbs (especially parsley), and shallots. It’s good to smear it through the arty stripes of soy sauce–ish balsamic reduction before you stick a forkful in your mouth.

(Crostinis are actually so hard-baked they’re tough to crack, but they help counter the meaty thing once you do crack ’em.)

Why’s it called steak tartare? Turns out, it used to have (like, in the 1800s) tartar sauce served with it. Except, some folks say tartar sauce may have been called tartar sauce only because it was a sauce to go with steak tartare, and that the whole custom of eating meat raw goes back to the Tartars, the wild-horse people of the Asian steppes. Guess they needed fast food when they were on the gallop. No time to cook. The legend is they’d put a slab of horsemeat under their saddles in the morning, and after a hard day’s riding, they had the perfect, tenderized steak to eat raw in the evening.

Gets your imagination going. What it must be like, dinner getting better and better every step of your galloping day. You wonder what you were in previous lives…

Then you look around. Glowing, cozy, civilized. We’re a million miles from the wild steppes. Javier says Café Bleu has been in business since 2007, first up at Fifth and University, and then, for the past three years, here on Washington. “We couldn’t have picked a tougher time to start,” he says. “But we’re still here.”

Amen to that. With a little more cash I could fall in love with this place. As it is, I get out with a bill of $16.09. For the experience, worth every cent.

Now (sigh), got to face that wild walk down through the black hills to the Washington Street trolley stop. Wish I had my Tartar horse.

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Your descriptions of the food made me so hungry. Can't wait to try it.

Actually, they are me pretty hungry just reading this over. Specially that French onion soup. Thanks, Alexandra!

May wife and I have eaten here a number of times. Never a bad meal. Great blu-burger. Great French onion soup. Great Croque Monsieur sandwich. Washington and Goldfinch area of Mission Hills is very cool.

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