Reviewed: Pain d'Avignon, Café Boulangerie Bistro
A taste of Boston's Back Bay or Manhattan's Soho in our own backyard.
It’s barely lunchtime and already the café is bustling. A man and his two little girls sit at a bar table and munch on pizza. Four random people share the long farmers table on the café side, each engrossed in his or her own newspaper, coffee or salad.
An elderly couple sizes up the room then decide, as I did, to opt for the bar, for reasons mostly practical. Unlike the self-serve café or the bistro with table service only at dinnertime, the bar offers food service all day long.
Admittedly, the café’s do-it-yourself etiquette, given the popularity (and possibly the layout) is a bit nerve wracking. The system requires you to place your order at the counter then find a seat and wait for a delivery. The frenetic reality is closer to “each hungry man for himself.”
As for even this abbreviated form of service, if you’re lucky, a napkin will arrive, and maybe a fork. Indeed, past visits can all be described with one word: chaotic. Perhaps organized, maybe self-inflicted, but disorderly, nonetheless. (How very French.) Yet, I keep coming back - definitely for the fabulous fresh bread, certainly for the novelty of a French-inspired menu and absolutely for the cosmopolitan ambiance.
We all can use a little of that cosmo feel after this drab long winter. Housebound by the unreasonably cold temps, struggling to keep the freelance assignments flowing, and somewhat sleep-deprived, I’ve needed more “me time” than usual. Today, that includes good food and pampering.
That’s why I grabbed my book and headed over to Pain d’Avignon, the French bakery, café and bistro on Hinckley Road. Pain d’Avignon was successful enough in its earliest, primitive incarnation on Airport Road thanks to the unfailing dedication of three former Yugoslavian refugees to really good bread.
Still, an oven fire in 2007 was probably the best thing that every happened to it, as the proximate cause of its relocation, expansion and boost in popularity.
I was already on the bandwagon when the Hinckley location opened up and popped in frequently for bread, pastry or coffee. But these visits did not go as smoothly as today’s. Indeed, one such visit was for Sunday brunch. The place was a mob scene and spare tables were hard to come by.
After a minor wait, my companions and I searched around quizzically for a menu. There were none, so each of us in turn mosied over to the “daily specials” board – located outside the entrance - to make our selection. The counter was inundated, but we finally accomplished our mission – in shifts - of placing our order, dutifully porting away cups and saucers of coffee back to our spot at the far side of the dining room. The food finally, mercifully, arrived, a Mediterranean Salad, a French dip, and a Croque Monsieur. No one had any utensils.
Today’s rendez-vous has gone much, much better. Sitting at the bar was just what the doctor ordered. Liz, the bartender/server, is friendly, hospitable and extremely helpful. She wholeheartedly approves of my order: pureed potato and garlic soup followed by maittake mushroom and shallot pizza.
I confess that my earlier forays into the (café) menu, while satisfying, were anything but remarkable, but today, my food got lobbed right out of the park.
(Confession: I’m a partial vegan/vegetarian, a fact that deprives my palate of the menu’s more conventional offerings, however, I am known to cheat when confronted with a seared filet of something).
But even confronted with the subtle, elegant flavors of roasted garlic and pan-seared shallots , the utensils are plastic and a napkin is a hot commodity. I also learn, after the thorough enjoyment of my pseudo vichyssoise, that its base is chicken broth. Sigh. It truly was delicious.
I learn, by experience, that the dinner menu is where Chef Toby Hill shows off his true culinary abilities. He has collected and embellished a short stack of classic French dishes like mâgret de canard (crispy Long Island duck), agneau hâché poilée (lamb burger on a buttered brioche), and coquilles Saint-Jacques (pan roasted scallops in a romanesco sauce).
I was partial to the ravioli de potiron et son homard, essentially one large pumpkin-filled, homemade ravioli topped with poached lobster and doused in a generous portion of pancetta sage butter. As my earlier, carnivorous self, I would have leapt on the tartare de boeuf – chopped aged sirloin with a spicy cognac aioli, but alas, those days are (mostly) gone. There’s even the French classic, steak frites, served with homemade fries.
Both the appetizers and main dishes are a bit pricey, compared to other high-end restaurants in town, but it’s possible to treat yourself every now and then to a tasting of appetizers and salads.
So the final verdict is in. The bread is outstanding, the café menu is very good and the classic menu is truly memorable.
But, I think the real bonus of dining at Pain D’Avignon is the camaraderie. I’ve been sitting at the bar for three hours and I’ve already met several lovely people, including Liz, who in spite of the napkin and chicken broth faux pas, has truly made my experience a positive one. I vow to come back again, eat their bread often, and sample some more of their extraordinary specials, but never between 4 and 5 o’clock, and preferably, at the bar.