2248 30th St. (South Park)
Prices: Salads, $8; crepes and paninis, $4 to $9
By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
When Christina Perez opened Café Madeleine two years ago, she received some of the best French assistance San Diego has to offer. In her quest to replicate crepes as they’re made in Brittany, France (the birthplace of crepes), she deferred to her husband, Jerome Gombert, owner of Vagabond restaurant located a block from the tiny cafe. Gombert is originally from Paris and often fires up his crepe pan for family meals.
Perez also tapped the expertise of another French person, Chef Patrick Ponsaty, who is lauded for his modern-French meals at Mistral at Loew’s Coronado Bay Resort. The result of their combined teamwork is a concise menu of lightweight crepes filled with sweet and savory ingredients, plus a variety of rich quiche and France’s irresistible hot sandwich of ham, cheese and béchamel, known as the Croque Monsieur. Order it with a soft-fried egg on top and “he” becomes a Croque Madame.
A day of fasting was in order before gorging here with a friend on a recent late afternoon, knowing full well that we would ingest enough French fare to sink a swan boat on the Rhone River if boarding afterwards.
Our first crepe was marked by a sprightly blend of chicken, walnuts, pears and robust blue cheese. It was served in the form of a flat, two-ply square with the fillings tucked neatly in the middle. All of the other crepes we tried were fashioned this way, proving that their customary folded presentation isn’t a hard rule. Although in a slight break from tradition, Perez uses regular white-flour batter for the savory versions because of limited refrigerator space. In Brittany, buckwheat batter sets the tone for non-sweet crepes.
Horseradish-spiked mayo and caramelized onions added oomph to the roast beef crepe. The meat inside was diced into confetti-like pieces as to not overtake the smooth, delicate texture of the thin pancakes. As any crepe master will tell you, there is an art to tilting the runny batter as it cooks before pairing the outcome with compatible flavor schemes.
“You can kind of throw anything into them, but that doesn’t make it a great crepe,” Perez said, referring also to the hot-selling smoked salmon crepe accented with capers and teasing measures of crème fraîche and lemon juice.
Other savory combinations include prosciutto with Emmental cheese, ham and Swiss with Dijon and tomato-mozzarella with pesto, each available in paninis as well.
When encroaching on a couple dessert crepes, we delighted over a filling of juicy orange and grapefruit pieces, with the citrus overtones contrasting perfectly by a plop of pastry crème on top. The sweet offerings extend also to cinnamon-pear, chocolate-banana and seasonal peaches soaked in Grand Marnier, any of which formidably compete with traditional Madeleine cookies made daily on the premises.
The menu’s belt busters, however, are the Croques and quiches. We opted for the Croque Madame with egg yolk cascading down its sides. The sandwich was filled with mildly smoked ham and crowned with béchamel sauce and toasted Emmental cheese. Recipes elsewhere frequently include Gruyere cheese in the mix, but even without, this was gooey and mouth tingling.
The café’s leek, fennel and goat cheese quiche is a fast sellout on most days, so we settled without complaint for a version containing bacon, spinach and tomatoes.
“We baby our quiche,” said Jesse Mateos, the cook on duty as he gently heated for us a generous wedge. The innards were moist and flavorful and the dense, yet flaky crust revealed that a French pastry wizard was behind the recipe: Chef Ponsaty to be exact.
The fare at Café Madeleine is complimented by coffee drinks from Illycaffe, a high-end Italian roaster that trains baristas worldwide how to make frappes and espressos without fillers and powders.
“We do everything the Illy way, using heavy cream toppings instead of whipped cream,” Perez said.
Among the cold caffeinated choices is a blended double espresso that takes on buttery notes from a bottom layer of caramel milk. Foamy and not overly sweet, we found it a fitting palate refresher while eating our way through this pretend visit to rural France.