Hits and misses at Le Fournil

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I really liked my high school French classes because there was a strong emphasis on learning about Francophone culture, besides the standard vocabulary and grammar essential to any language study. We learned about life in French-speaking countries outside of France, popular songs, and movies. And of course we learned about food. I have a lot of food memories associated with high school French classes.

The first time I baked bread was for extra credit in French class. I found a baguette recipe on Cooking For Engineers. I was intimidated because the baguette “is the most demanding test of a baker’s skill,” but the precision of the Cooking For Engineers recipe was really useful and my loaf came out stunningly, everything a baguette should be: a glossy crust that crunched and turned chewy as the bread transitioned to the generously soft, squishy crumb.

(With a name like Cooking For Engineers, it’s not surprising that the recipe would be so precise and detailed. Anyone who can follow a science lab’s procedure can cook – it’s just a matter of combining the right materials with the right equipment under the right conditions for the right amount of time. Cook’s Illustrated is the best cooking magazine because techniques are all explained by hard science.)

Back to the French cuisine. Someone else brought cornichons and raclette to the extra credit picnic. Cornichons are just tiny, firm, mottled pickles and aren’t worth flying over an ocean for, but raclette, a type of mild, elastic cheese, just might be. The preparation and serving – a chunk of the cheese is heated and melted parts are scraped off onto a plate with a knife – might be as theatrical as the frequent display in Italian restaurants where got spaghetti carbonara is tossed around in a hollowed-out wheel of Parmesan to cost the pasta with that cheesy flavor.

Once, our teacher Madame Peters took us on a lunchtime field trip to Le Fournil, a bakery and cafe near the University of Washington. The smell of butter coming from the small storefront was unforgettably glorious, hinting at the wonders within. We all got lunch specials (main, dessert, drink) and several students bought baguettes ($1.75) that they tore into the way people who have been raised on mechanical Oroweat and Franz and have finally discovered non-commercial loaves do. They had extremely thin crusts, almost cracker-like, beautifully browned. The insides were tender and airy.

This was the first time I remembered experiencing a proper French meal. It was perfection.

Yesterday, I went back to Le Fournil for the first time in a long time – two years in college including four months of eating ridiculous amounts in Paris.

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Bakers can be seen at work from the street.

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What jumps out at visitors immediately -after the smells – is the sense of pride Le Fournil has in its French heritage.

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Le Fournil is pretty well-known among Seattle’s French eateries and a popular lunch spot. The blue sign in the upper right-hand corner says, in French, “Welcome to the first enterprise of France.”

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That would be, of course, baking, with products from the populist baguette to jewel-like patisserie.

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I ordered the lunch special like I had my first visit. This consists of a main, a drink, and a dessert for a very reasonable $9.99 before taxes and add-ins. Prices and options can be seen below. Lots of choices!

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To start, a white mocha. Nothing special, but I really appreciated how it wasn’t scalding hot and I could drink it immediately!

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I had a tuna sandwich the first time and ordered it again, which I forgot to take a picture of. It looked like any of the sandwiches Paris storefronts sell to passerby – a crusty demi-baguette encasing the filling. Besides looking like the ones in France it tasted like the ones in France – good and filling – and had a similar cost. The flour notes of the bread were sweet and smooth. I was very happy with the sandwich and would expect so from Le Fournil’s founder, a Frenchman.
For my dessert, I chose a mille-feuille because it was the prettiest thing in the case.
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Now, here I’m going to sound like the nitpicking main character of one of the top-selling comics in the world, the food manga Oishinbo (The Gourmet). The main character has an almost unmatched understanding of food, and he won’t hesitate to say something sucks, and why. Here he is right after slamming a noodle dish from a famous restaurant (read right-to-left):
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A mille-feuille is two layers of pastry cream between three layers of puff pastry. This mille-feuille had the structure but the execution was appalling. First, I strongly suspect the “cream” wasn’t dairy cream, but made of oil. A really good pastry cream will cling thickly to the roof of the mouth, but this was swallowed down with no resistance, much like the garishly colored frosting on cheap supermarket sheet cakes. The texture was all wrong. Five unrefrigerated hours later, the uneaten half was almost unchanged in appearance and texture. This kind of stability usually means oil. And using oil for a pastry cream instead of real cream is unacceptable.
Now, if this mille-feuille was really made with dairy and not oil, that’s even sadder. Oishinboemphasizes that good cooking brings out the complete potential of the ingredient. Bad food made with bad ingredients are one thing, but bad food made with quality ingredients are even worse because of the wasted potential.
The pastry was a failure as well. It was limp, like greasy paper, providing no needed crunch to contrast with the gloopy texture of the cream.
Even the raspberries were disappointing. Fine on their own, they became tasteless after I tried the cream, even though they were dusted with powdered sugar. Furthermore, I could not taste any raspberry, or fruit, or anything flavor from the pink cream. Just gross, gross, gross.
I also must mention that the presentation was sloppy. I had asked for the lunch to go, and was expecting a box or bag for the items. Instead, I was handed the dessert in a clear clamshell container, the sandwich in a sleeve that couldn’t be closd, and the (hot) drink in a cup without a lid (seriously?). Only the dessert was packaged appropriately.
Will I write off Le Fournil completely? No way. Le Fournil does enough things well to ignore the things it does badly. But next time I’ll be playing it safe and getting the same impossibly decadent chocolate tart I had the first time for dessert.
Le Fournil
3230 Eastlake Ave E, Seattle, WA 98102
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