The soup comes in a sunny yellow china bowl, a sturdy upside-down dome. Steam huffs out when you pierce its melted-cheese-and-massive-croutons crown to reach a deep brown, almost cola-colored broth heavy with franc-sized onion shards. Obligingly translucent, limp as Dali's clocks, they gush between your teeth that strange sly sweetness cooking can coax from harsh hard things that refuse to be gobbled raw. The broth is salty, but it's supposed to be, the croutons soaked and cloaked. How French.
Well, yeah. It's called French onion soup. And like virtually everything else dubbed "French," its very name conveys a torrent of clichés that would be laughable if they weren't so hypnotic and at least a little true. You know: Monet. Berets. Cafes.
In the minds of all those who have been to France and those who have not dwell a zillion fragmentary Frances, fantasized and real. It's one of those rare places that's not just a place. Which is why we don't see a lot of, say, Uzbek cafes.
"I Love Paris in the Springtime" is pouring through the speakers at Café Saint Honoré on a dazzling afternoon, as sunshine pouring through the windows from Gilman Street and busy San Pablo Avenue gilds the latticed crust on the slice of fruit tart awaiting a man making business deals on his iPhone, typing on his laptop as he talks. At another of the little tables — decoupaged with French postcards, cartoons, and maps — a couple sits sipping café au lait. Our salad, served with a stylish three-pronged fork alongside an eye-shaped mushroom-stuffed brioche, is a sweet sprightly mélange of oak-leaf lettuce, green onions, cranberries, almonds, and croutons. Our asparagus quiche is dense and generous, its bottom crust the cousin of a cookie, its bronzed top almost caramelized. For sale on shelves along the fleur-de-lis-flecked walls are bags of lavender, jars of Maille mustard, cans of Clement Faugier chestnut spread, and slim boxes of butter cookies from Normandy's Biscuiterie de l'Abbaye. How French. Around another table, four shiny-haired women expound over Netbooks with that hey-look-at-me-what-the-hell-are-you-looking-at hauteur that marks them as students.
"They do this crazy-ass thing with laser beams," one of the women roars. The visible part of her red T-shirt reads "Marxist Feminist Dialectic." This, too, is French.
Paul Cruce worked at Safeway for many years — as a store manager, then at the corporate office in Walnut Creek. For most of that time, he yearned to open a French cafe. His mother's family comes from Normandy. He's always loved to bake. In 2005, Cruce "decided I would repot myself to Paris" and attend baking school. There he learned more before returning to his Albany home and opening Café Saint Honoré, named for the patron saint of bakers, eight months ago. Although he and co-owner Chris Wilson would like the place to become a full boulangerie and patisserie, it presently lacks the square footage and facilities. So dough and other essentials, provided by outside suppliers, are proofed and baked in the cafe's large convection oven. Croissant dough comes from Brittany-bred pastry chef Jean-Yves Charon, whose Richmond-based Galaxy Desserts also services Trader Joe's and Williams-Sonoma. Baguettes are crafted by Cordon Bleu-trained Nancy Silverton, cofounder and head baker at Los Angeles' trendy La Brea Bakery. Artisan Foods of Berkeley, the folks behind Lalime's and Fonda, create pastries, many of them based on beloved recipes that Cruce collected in Paris. Custardy coconut congolais. Buttery gâteau Basque, its lemon cream so sweet and thick and almond-kissed you want to scream; then you find whole sour cherries buried in its yellow-velvet depths and want — because you know you cannot eat this every day — to die.
Given its limitations, the cafe's menu is bracingly large and diverse, featuring classics such as ham-and-cheese croque monsieur sandwiches alongside such whimsies as chien chaud, a baguette-clad hot dog awash in Gruyère and béchamel sauce. In some of those zillion real and imaginary Frances, laughter is forbidden. But this isn't one of those. This is the France of a jolly and proudly American Francophile. Hence the Vacheuccino.
I hate mangling the names of menu items when I order. Vache is French, its ch sounding like sh. Yet ccino is Italian, its cc sounding like ch. I raged while stammering, but see: This is a riff on "Frappuccino," using vache because they're milky espresso smoothies and because Louis la Vache is Cruce's alter ego and online persona. Our mocha and fraise-vanille Vacheuccinos — two among a half-dozen available flavors — were frosty, snowdrift-light, and savvily not-too-sweet. This same not-too-sweetness characterizes the Ici ice cream sold here, the chocolate flavor in our scoop elusive, more an aftertaste or perfume than a taste, as if chocolate were a flower, not a bean.
On another visit, a pair of parsley-sprinkled, vinegar-splashed eggs poached mercifully firm come with butter, jam, and baguette. Equally hearty, if a tad dry, is our salade niçoise sandwich: capers, olives, onion, chopped boiled egg, and tuna on a baguette that is moored with wooden spikes festooned with cornichons.
These baguettes are wider and denser than those we knew in France. This butter comes from Oregon. Strong mellow coffee, roasted in Emeryville, counterbalances a shattery-soft almond-paste croissant. A roasted-red-pepper-and-Gruyère sandwich comes on triangles of sliced oat-flaxseed bread the likes of which you'd be hard-pressed to find in France, but who's complaining? It stands three-plus inches high.
It's a hybrid. "We're havin' a little fun," Cruce laughs, but French cafes refracted through foreign and fantasy lenses might soon be the last French cafes left on Earth. Globalization finds the French — especially French youth — replacing classic French cuisine in classic venues with fast food, as Saveur writer Michael Steinberger reveals in his unsettling new book, Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France. Stunned, Steinberger unveils an apocalypse: cheeses made for centuries, now newly extinct; broke winemakers committing suicide; an exodus of chefs; a massive cafe die-off. In 1960, France had 200,000 cafes, in 2008 only 40,000. Hundreds — maybe thousands — close each year, laments Steinberger, repulsed by the meteoric rise of French McDonald's and transfixed by the passion for high-quality French food in Japan. This is what happens to those things we assume are eternal but are not. They twitch, transmutate, teleport. Vive les zillions Frances. They survive, sort of, somewhere.