The Belgian bakery/eatery Le Pain Quotidien is somewhat of a head-scratcher for me. I can never seem to spell or pronounce the name correctly, and up until I "Googled it" and discovered that the chain of restaurants was founded by Belgian chef Alain Coumont (Wikipedia), I was under the impression that it was French. It's not.
Despite my ignorant misconceptions and confusion over the popular cafe that is famous for their decadent fudge brownies and communal tables, I was eager to give Le Pain's offerings a test drive on my tongue. It's overt chaininess didn't particularly appeal to my snob-like sensibilities, but several little birdies (including those pesky 'hounders and yelpers) made it clear that Le Pain Quotidien is far superior to the woefully generic Panera or Cosi. Plus, I really liked the sound of that chocolate hazelnut spread that they give patrons to smear on slices of their freshly baked bread.
This past Sunday, unable to get back to my West Hollywood apartment due to road closures for the AIDS walk, a friend and I descended upon the Beverly Hills location in search of something cute and... err... Belgian to munch. As usual, I arrived at the sunshine soaked cafe with a side dish of indecisiveness. My stomach was purring with hunger-induced lust, and as I eyed the various tartines and omelets emerging from the kitchen, I wanted it all.
When our waitress arrived with menus, I asked for her recommendations on, well, everything (with the exception of my lackluster love life). So great was my indecisiveness, I couldn't even pick out a flavor of iced tea without her assistance. Throwing caution to the subtle Bev Hills breeze, I snubbed my usual green tea for her suggestion -- the Chamomile Mint ($3.50), which came in a glass with real mint leaves floating at the top, as well as a carafe of the delectable beverage for some do-it-myself refills. This tea was crazy good, and I may be inclined to follow the lead of fellow foodie blogger Jen ("Becoming a Foodie") and make my own at home. (Stay tuned...)
As I sipped my beverage, I continued to host an internal debate regarding the merits of the asparagus and goat cheese omelet vs. the chicken curry tartine with harissa cranberry chutney. The omelet did come with the bread and hazelnut chocolate spread that I had heard so much about, but our waitress was very animate about the popularity of the chicken curry tartine. Whatever was a hungry foodie to do? And how did a lazy Sunday brunch become so stressful? Could it be because Le Pain lists the calories in their dishes right on the menu (570 calories for the tartine)? Or could it be because I'm just a neurotic nut case?
I finally settled on the chicken curry tartine ($10.75) and was, again, thrilled with our extremely patient waitress' suggestion. While I felt somewhat like I was guest starring in that "Seinfeld" episode where people take to eating Snicker bars and donuts with a knife and fork, it was nice to finally relax and take a break from all my neurotic musings. Eating the open-faced sandwich with a knife and fork allowed me to eat slowly and methodically -- just like a French... err Belgian... woman would. I didn't feel compelled to shovel the delicately spiced chicken salad into my mouth, nor did I mind that the portions were understated. The one slice of cantaloupe melon and two slices of mango were perfectly ripe and sweet, and the accompanying tomato, cucumbers and radishes were of similar fine quality.
Though I enjoyed my light lunch and was impressed with all the attention paid to the details, I'm still scratching my head over the restaurant. Yes, the chicken curry tartine was good, but was it better than my favorite chicken curry sandwich at Urth Caffe? And while it was fun to be all posh and sophisticated with my fork and knife, some of the joy of eating a sandwich was lost in the process. Sometimes I like to cram things in my mouth. Especially when I don't know how many calories are in the product I'm injesting. Because no matter how slowly I eat it, that brownie everyone moans about is still packing 500+ calories. And that's not very French... err Belgian at all.