There's plenty to love about the French—the food, the wine ... Gerard Depardieu. (Hey, what would '80s comedy have been like without him?) And, of course, there are the beautiful, lilting refrains of a shared conversation en français over a café au lait and a nice plate of crêpes Suzette. The next time you dine out in a snazzy French place, try a few of your own: "Vous avez de la ciboulette sur votre dent" (You have a chive stuck on your tooth), or maybe "Est-ce que vous êtes ivre?" (Are you drunk?)
Chez Axel, our own petite piece of France on Montgomery Boulevard, is the perfect spot to try out your linguistic skills over a cup of onion soup. Located in a modest strip mall, it is barely visible from the street, but worth discovering on the city map.
The interior struck me as being upscale yet cozy, with brick red walls and a baby grand piano in the foyer. Whoever decorated the place must have had fun—there is an eclectic mix of tiny French peasant dolls, printed panels and wine racks literally climbing the walls. I was seated right next to a wall o' wine, where I noticed a couple of excellent (and affordable) bottles—a 2002 Côtes-du-Rhône Château d'Aigueville, and a 2003 Barton & Guestier Vouvray.
A modest menu is a plus when going out for French. The menu here is simple, and my server, Bella, was charming from start to finish. (Her accent is adorable, too.) I ordered a small green salad as an appetizer ($4), and the balsamic dressing was sweet and tangy, with just a hint of a mustard bite to it. My leaves were cut quite large, and were sprinkled with walnuts, olives and baby plum tomatoes, and the side of bread was a fresh and crusty sliced baguette with real butter. I have often wondered if France is one of those lucky countries without Shedd's spread margarine, but they do have Euro Disney, so our influence is still assured.
The two freshly made soups are onion and carrot (small $4, large $5), the latter of which is served either chaud or froid (hot or cold), and in addition to the green salad, they offer others made with goat cheese, tomato and mozzarella, chicken, or spinach and feta.
My lunch entrée was brought with expert timing, and the trout amadine ($12.50) was a big meal for lunch, but that's why we have doggie bags, bien sûr.
My fish was succulent ruby-red flesh with crispy skin, piled with thick, toasted almond slivers. The sides of red potatoes and garlic-butter broccoli were a nice addition.
Both the lunch and dinner menus consist of sturdy, classic favorites like beef Bourguignon, shrimp or chicken Provençal, veal cordon bleu, and crêpes with either sweet or savory fillings.
And who could forget the quiche? Certainly not me, because all the girly-man/metrosexual jokes in the world couldn't keep me from a nice slice of quiche Lorraine filled with ham, cheese, onions and herbs. Chez Axel also offers a cheesy, garlicky spinach quiche, and a seafood du jour slice, all of which come with a side of fresh vegetables ($5.75).
The French are known for their calorie-count-killing desserts, and the sweets here include chocolate mousse ($4), the orange lover's classic crêpes Suzette ($6) and profiteroles (puff pastry filled with vanilla custard) with warm chocolate syrup ($5).
And for a sparkling after-dinner conversation, how about a couple more phrases with which to impress the other diners? Look your dinner companion in the eye and ask, "Bof, la police ne t'a pas encore trouvé?” (What, haven't the cops found you yet?) Or perhaps, after a meal, silence is golden, oui?