Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Desserts from Café Claude

A few weeks ago, I dined on Claude Lane for the first time.  I've walked through that area a zillion times, yet never stopped to eat, probably because many of the establishments are only open on weekdays.  Claude Lane is a peculiar place, basically just an alley, but a "lane" sounds so much cuter.  And, when the restaurants are open, it really is pretty cute.  They each set up outside seating in the lane, and then, it really is much more than an alley.

My first visit to Claude Lane brought me to Claudine, where I had, quite literally, the best crème brûlée of my life.  And if you know me, you know I love desserts, particularly puddings or custards, and crème brûlée is one of my ultimate favorites.  Impressing me with a crème brûlée is no easy feat, and Claudine blew me away.

So I returned to Claude Lane on a Saturday afternoon, this time dragging Ojan with me.  We could not return to Claudine, as they are only open during the afternoon on weekdays, so we choose their sister restaurant, Café Claude, located across the alley.  Both locations serve up classic French cuisine, but just like when I went to Claudine, I had eyes for only one thing: dessert!
Outdoor Tent Seating.
Café Claude has a generous seating area outside, under a red tent.  Since it was a bit cool out, on our first visit, we ventured indoors.  Inside are small tables, mostly just 2-tops, all set with white tablecloths and cloth black napkins.  A bit more formal than I was expecting.  The restaurant wasn't very full, but when I said we'd just like dessert, we were told that only the bar seating was available.  This was fine with me, as I loved the bar vibe at Claudine.  The bar area at Café Claude however is clearly a second class citizen, and honestly, one of the least comfortable bars I've ever sat at.  It had no overhang at all, so it was impossible to get close to the counter.  There were no purse or jacket hooks, so my belongings had to sit on the floor.  The bar stools were nicely padded however.

On my next visit, it was a nicer day out, so we sat outside.  I was seated directly under a heat lamp, which I hadn't noticed on my first visit, and makes much more sense given San Francisco's weather.  That is the secret to making the lane seating usable!

Another thing I loved about Claudine was how open, bright, and airy it was.  Café Claude was again the opposite in this regard.  Although the walls are painted yellow, there is very little light inside, as the only windows are on the front entrance, facing the lane, since both sides of the dining room, and the back, are all enclosed by other buildings.  It felt very dark.

The service was friendly enough, and I liked being in the bar area to watch the drink orders come through.  I'm always a bit fascinated to see what people are drinking at 2pm.  Most were opting for coffee drinks, although a few did go for wine.

Like Claudine, Cafe Claude accepts PayPal for payment, but unlike ever other time I've used PayPal, it did not work smoothly on my first visit.  The PayPal app was really acting up.  I wasn't able to log in, a necessary first step.  I killed the app several times, toggled airplane mode on and off, and eventually got it to log in.  I thought my woes were over, as I received my paper bill, typed in my special code, and my order showed up.  I could easily split the check if I needed, and add my desired tip amount.  Everything looked fine, and I hit the button to pay.  The app told me to check with my server that it had gone through, so I did.  And ... no luck.  I went through the whole process 3 more times.  Same result.  Pulled the bill up fine.  Added tip fine.  Hit the payment button.  Same strange warning to make sure it worked.  Sigh.  So I killed the app again.  Fought with login again.  Typed in my bill code again.  Added the tip again.  Hit submit.  And this time, the app told me it was successful, but I still verified with the bartender.  It worked, but it really was not a smooth experience.  It seems like it was likely a PayPal problem, but this is the first time I've ever had trouble paying with PayPal, normally it a time saver.  On my subsequent visits however, it worked without a problem.  I think PayPal was just having issues on that first visit.

Anyway, the desserts were well made.  I didn't love any of them, but mostly due to my own preferences.  I think their pastry chef is talented, and I appreciated aspects of each dessert I tried.

First Visit, April 2014

Decaf Coffee.  $3.
I may have been at Café Claude for dessert, but if you've ever dined with me, you know how much I love pairings.  In particular, I always love a bitter coffee to compliment my sweet dessert.

Since it was later in the day, I went for decaf.  It was pre-brewed, just poured for me out of a carafe.  It was ... fine.  Served nice and hot, which I appreciated, with a small glass on the side filled with assorted sweeteners, and the offer of cream to add.  I added nothing, which means, it wasn't too bad.  I prefer my coffee black, particularly when pairing with dessert, but often decaf is so bad that I have no choice but to add sweetener and milk.

The timing was also perfect.  I was able to enjoy a few sips before my dessert arrived, but it didn't run out before my dessert.  I get pretty grumpy when I specifically order coffee intending to pair it with my dessert, and it arrives immediately after I place the order, which is nice in theory, except that it is long gone, or stone cold, by the time my dessert arrives.  Or, if it arrives after my dessert, which I do sorta understand, as I'm sure some people like it to conclude their meal.  Anyway, this timing was perfect.

It is hard to see in the picture, but also on the saucer was a small chocolate, Café Claude branded.  A nice touch!

So overall, it was fine, and I appreciated having coffee with my dessert, but there wasn't anything special about the coffee.  The cup was really small though, I found myself wanting to ration it.  Price was fine, particularly with the inclusion of the chocolate!
Crème Brûlée.  $8.
And for the main event, my precious crème brûlée, which the menu proclaimed was "made with 'bourbon' vanilla bean".

The first thing I noticed was the different size serving vessel than the one from Claudine.  There, it was in a wider, more shallow dish.  Here it was in a classic crème brûlée ramekin.  I quickly realized part of why I loved Claudine's version so much - even if there was the same amount of pudding, in a more shallow dish, you have more surface area, and hence, more of the caramelized top.  And, that top is an essential component of crème brûlée for me.  Now I wonder why this style is the standard ramekin used?

But back to my crème brûlée.  I first performed the standard "tap test".  It stood up to my spoon tapping, then easily broke into pieces.  Not bad.  I then did the "temperature test".  Yes, the top was still a bit warm, and the rest very cold, indicating that it had been freshly brûléed.  Another point.  You'd be surprised how many places get even these two basic aspects wrong!

As I said, it passed the tap test, but the topping wasn't as thick as I'd like it.  Claudine did this aspect better.  What was there had a good caramel flavor, not burnt, but there wasn't enough for my liking.  And, as I noted, the smaller top surface area decreased the amount of topping in the first place.

Ojan was with me on this visit, and he took the first bite, and said, "yup, it tastes like pudding".  I rolled my eyes, thinking that he always says that about crème brûlée, or any other pudding-like dessert.  However, in this case, I absolutely agreed with him.  It tasted like vanilla pudding.  Good vanilla pudding for sure, but, it was lacking the custardyness and thicker consistency that transforms pudding into crème brûlée.  Since there was so little topping, and it was really just a pudding, once I thought of it as vanilla pudding instead, I did enjoy it, and it was very, very creamy.  But, a great crème brûlée it was not.  I was also a bit disappointed by the vanilla component, as I always prefer to actually see flecks of vanilla bean throughout.

You may be wondering what the thing on the side of the plate is.  We were too.  The menu description did not indicate that it would come with anything.  I tried a bite plain to figure out what it was.  It was a rolled up cookie, with a taste and texture that reminded me of a waffle cone.  Slightly sweetened, easy to break into pieces, and very thin.  But it was coated in seeds, making it look almost like a cracker.  I think they were anise seeds, but it might have been fennel.  Either way, the flavor was strong, and very savory.  A bit of a strange pairing with the crème brûlée.  But ... I did really enjoy breaking off pieces of the cookie and dipping it into the pudding.  It filled the void that thicker chunks of caramelized topping would have filled.  I also appreciated serving crème brûlée with something besides just a few token berries on top.  I think if they changed up the spicing on the cookie, this could be a very successful pairing.

The $8 price was fine, and I enjoyed it as pudding, but the version from Claudine was in another league entirely.  I think I need to go back there soon!

Second Visit, June  2014. 

Decaf Iced Coffee.  $3.
On my second visit, since it was a warm day, I went a iced coffee instead, again decaf since it was afternoon.  It was again served with a cup of assorted sweeteners, and a little pitcher of milk.  No chocolate accompanied this one though.

Like the hot coffee, it was highly unremarkable.  Not particularly good nor bad.  The server noted that the ice was melting quickly when he added it (since, they just poured the hot coffee over ice), so he brought me an extra glass of ice that I could add.  A very thoughtful touch!
Paris Brest. $9.
On my second visit, I knew that I wanted to branch out from the crème brûlée.  I'd been eyeing the menu for a few weeks, and had my heart set on the pain perdu, a custard soaked brioche, with strawberries.  Oh yes please!

I was a bit devastated when I arrived, and found it no longer on the menu, even though it still showed on their online menu.  There was still a strawberry dessert, but, alas, it was a tart.  I never really care for tarts.  Besides the crème brûlée, there were two chocolate options, but I try not to have chocolate late in the day.  Which left me with only one choice: the paris brest.

Paris Brest is normally filled with praline cream, and isn't very high on my list of pastries. I was thinking of maybe picking the strawberry tart instead.  Or just going for the chocolate mousse.  But I asked my server for advice, and he told me the paris brest was fabulous.  And, it wasn't a typical paris brest, as the description said: "pâte à choux, lavender & mascarpone diplomat crème, blackberry coulis, almonds".  While it include almonds, it didn't really sound like typical praline cream.

So, I went for it.  Service was fast, my dessert arrived quickly, with a friendly "bon appétit"!

It looked like a typical paris brest, a pâte à choux ring, sliced in half, filled with cream.  The pâte à choux was ok, but, is one of my least favorite pastries, as it can often be fairly eggy, in a way that I just don't care for.  And sadly, this was eggy, and a bit soggy.  The very top was crispy, and I liked the crunch from the almond slivers on it, but I didn't care for the bottom.  The ratio of pastry to filling seemed off, just way too much pastry for the amount of filling, but, that is likely just because I didn't like the pastry.

Inside was the cream, certainly not a standard praline cream.  The menu described it as lavender & mascarpone diplomat crème, but it was very, very thick.  Diplomat cream is normally made by mixing pastry cream and whipped cream, resulting in a lighter filling than standard pastry cream, so that is what I was expecting.  This was much thicker, presumably due to the mascarpone?  I didn't love the texture, nor did I pick up on much mascarpone, but the lavender was fairly remarkable.  Lavender can be so dangerous.  A little too much, and it tastes like soap.  The lavender here was applied expertly.  Subtle, but you could still taste it, but certainly not overwhelming.  It also wasn't too sweet.

Also inside with the cream were a few blackberries, which, are one of my least favorite berries, due to the seeds.  I can't stand the seeds, and these were no exception.  When the server described the dish to me, he said raspberries, not blackberries, even though the menu did call out the blackberry coulis.

Speaking of the coulis, the whole thing was sitting in a pool of berry coulis.  Like lavender, another element that so often goes wrong.  When is the last time you had a coulis that wasn't just crazy sweet?  Well, Cafe Claude got this component right too.  It was sweetened, for sure, but it wasn't sickeningly sweet.  It tasted intensely blackberry flavored, but was strained, eliminating the seeds that I hate so much.  Beautiful flavor, very balanced, and the combination of the blackberry flavor and the lavender was really quite extraordinary.

So, did I like this dessert?  Actually, no.  But, in this case, I think it is entirely my fault.  Cafe Claude nailed the difficult aspects of the dish with the lavender and the coulis, what I didn't like was the pastry itself, which again, is normal for me and this style.  It could have been a great choux pastry, it doesn't matter, when I just don't care for the taste.  I did enjoy some bites where I just scooped out the cream and ran my spoon through the coulis, appreciating the creamy component and the balanced flavors.

The menu read $8, but my bill said $9.  I noticed, but didn't say anything.  I'm sure it was a mistake, but still ...

Third Visit, September 2014.

Tarte au Fruit. $8.
On my final visit, I just wanted to pick up a dessert to bring to Ojan, who was home sick.  I was disappointed that the menu hadn't changed at all since my last visit.  I was hoping summery, seasonal creations would have made their way on to the menu.

I didn't think crème brûlée was best for takeout, and I knew that Ojan would love the molton chocolate cake, but that certainly wasn't the right choice for takeout either, so I was left with the paris brest again, or the tarte au fruit.  I didn't like the Paris Brest, so it was an easy choice, particularly as the tarte au fruit sounded promising: "Almond frangipane tart, seasonal fruit, chantilly."

Of course, I say this was for Ojan, but clearly I intended to steal a few bites.

I was disappointed when it arrived.  Not by the presentation of course, as they did a really nice job of plating it up, even for takeout.  Berry sauce on the bottom, fresh raspberries alongside, scoop of chanilly cream on top, dusted with powdered sugar.  No, what I was saddened by is that it looked like clafoutis, not the fruit tart I was expecting.  I thought it would be a tart shell, with a layer of frangipane, plenty of raw fruit, and fresh chantilly cream.  This was cakelike, the fruit was cooked inside.  There was a tart shell.

I don't really have much to say about this, as it just really wasn't what I wanted.  Maybe if you like this sort of desert it was good.  There wasn't anything wrong with it, but I really just didn't want it.  I ate a few bites of fresh fruit, the tart shell, and some cream, and Ojan had the rest.  He seemed to enjoy it.

I did appreciate the size, it was actually the appropriate size for one person.  The $8 price would make sense if dining in the restaurant.  I'll be waiting for a menu change up before I return.
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