Café Lola, Fairfield
★★½ [Very Good-Superior]
April in Paris? Say “Café Lola” and you are there, in the 5th Arrondissement, sipping wine and ordering the plat du jour. It tastes like something a French grandmother in the country might have made because some of the best home cooking in the world comes from the bistros in Paris, and Café Lola is a French bistro. The food speaks for itself—as it did in the golden Paris of yesteryear when Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce, and before them Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, hung out at Crémerie-Restaurant Polidor.
Chef-owner Henri Donneaux has cooked at some pretty haute places (with Guy Savoy in Paris, with David Bouley in New York, at La Panetière in Westchester), but when he opened Café Lola in Fairfield in 2008, he had something different in mind—a snug little cave, off the beaten path, like that little bistro you discovered when you lost your way in le Quartier Latin, Montmartre or the Marais.
He knew what he wanted it to look like and the odd dimensions of the space he found, literally a few steps down from street level on Unquowa Road in Fairfield, seem made for it. Tiny vestibule, tiny bar. Done up in a Bohemian-chic way.
But there’s nothing artsy or faux about the food. It’s classic bistro cuisine by an experienced, European-trained chef. How classic can you get? You might start as we did with escargots. Served out of the shell in the traditional indented china platter, these tender, tasty morsels were literally sizzling in garlic butter, parsley and a splash of Pernod. I’ve enjoyed more unusual preparations of escargots elsewhere, but they paled beside this bold rendition of the original.
Marseille and other Mediterranean ports of call may be most famous for bouillabaisse but Provençal cooks make wonderful fish soups with whatever the fishing boats are bringing in that day even if it’s a single variety. Almost any edible fish will do, but you do need the whole fish—head, bones and all. Some chefs flavor the brew with a splash of Cognac or Pernod. Café Lola’s fish soup, a creamy brew sans tomatoes and scented with saffron, is a subtle triumph of intermingling flavor nuances. I don’t know what’s in it but it sings softly of the sea. Bouillabaisse and cioppino may bite back, but not this suave, almost sexy soup.
Lulled into momentary inattention, I was surprised by the Salade de Fromage. Cheeses, yes: Port Salut, Brie, goat, blue and Grûyère fanned out on a plate with mixed greens on top. But the cheeses were heated just shy of melting. I missed the word “warm” on the menu—but I wouldn’t have missed this salad for anything. Cheese hounds, take note.
For a one-chef kitchen, Café Lola exhibits a high degree of attention to detail. A plate of charcuterie included rillettes made with duck instead of pork, spicy slices of dry sausage and a rich chicken liver pâté. Each was good in its way and together they comprised a satisfying study in contrasts, but chef Donneaux went the second mile, meticulously furnishing the plate with traditional garnishes—tasty little cornichons, spicy mustard and thin, crisp slices of toasted baguette.
“Grand plates” comprise a spectrum ranging from roasted duck to macaroni au gratin. A pleasing delicacy characterizes much of chef Donneaux’s cooking and the duck exemplified it. Lean slices of medium-rare pan-seared duck breast were laved with a bright sour-cherry sauce—a far cry from rich and overly sweet. Overkill is not in this chef’s culinary vocabulary. Even the macaroni au gratin with bacon and Grûyère, aka “grown-up mac ’n’ cheese,” isn’t too much of a muchness.
And there’s plenty to eat, because bistro fare is hearty and Café Lola’s entrées come with vegetables, potatoes or pasta and sometimes a salad. Faro, baby carrots and green onions came with our duck. Beef Bourguig-non arrived piping hot in a clay pot to be ladled over papardelle; striped bass came with roasted cherry tomatoes, black olives and aromatic slices of cooked fennel.
Served with a petite watercress salad, Café Lola’s steak frites was a revelation. We might have been dining at the original Le Relais de Venise l’Entrecôte in Paris, which for over 50 years served nothing else. The frites were as crisp, the steak sliced thin, across the grain, was as tasty, but it was the sauce that worked the alchemy. L’Entrcôte’s recipe, a closely guarded family secret, has baffled foodies for years. Has chef Henri Donneaux guessed the ingredients? Or has he created a legendary sauce of his own?
Desserts are delicious and only slightly limited by the exigencies of space and staffing. Because the dining room is too small to alow food carts and fireworks, crêpes Suzette are flamed in the kitchen. A frisson of visual glamour may be missing but these tender little crêpes with their orange zest sauce and Grand Marnier flambée are Paris in the mouth. Tarte tatin gets a Provençal twist with honey-lavender sauce, and bite-size profiteroles with chocolate Nutella sauce offer a chance to indulge without going overboard, but I can’t help liking the simplest dessert best, Café Liégeois—coffee and vanilla ice cream and crème chantillly in a tall parfait glass, a tribute to the French-speaking Belgian city where Henri Donneaux received his training as a chef.
57 Unquowa Rd., Fairfield 203/292-8014, cafelolarestaurant.com
Open seven days a week. Lunch 11:30 to 2:30, dinner 5:30 to close. Sunday brunch 11:30 to 3. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $9 to $15, entrées $18 to $32, desserts $8.