A la Bonne Franquette is a charming, unpretentious bistro atop Mount Baker ridge that fits squarely into the neighborhood-restaurant niche, presenting unfussy food, skillfully prepared.
“Context is all.” Margaret Atwood’s resonant phrase from “The Handmaid’s Tale” occurred to me over dinner in this romantic bistro perched along the Mount Baker ridge directly atop the I-90 tunnel.
Did the hilltop view of the Seattle skyline make the stewed chicken and spice-rubbed Canadian rockfish taste extra delicious? Did the guitar player’s mellow strumming allow me to overlook the fact that the side of sautéed bell pepper, zucchini and cherry tomatoes wasn’t really ratatouille? The short answer is yes.
A la Bonne Franquette, the charming, unpretentious restaurant that chef Hamed Elnazir and his wife, Pascale Brochier, opened last summer fits squarely into the neighborhood-restaurant niche. Seating is a mix of kitchen counter, bar and closely spaced tables that are devoid of linen save for the blue-and-white dish towel that serves as your napkin. It wraps the silverware that you likely will keep throughout the meal.
The menu treads familiar ground and is sensibly short, thus manageable for a two-person kitchen. In addition to pantry items like cheese, pâté, olives and nuts, you’ll find a couple of soups, a few salads and a handful of entrees — steak, chicken, lamb, some sort of fish, a vegetarian option, each adhering to a protein-starch-vegetable rubric.
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It is unfussy food, skillfully prepared. The Sudanese-born Elnazir is fond of certain spices common in his homeland: Cardamom, ginger and coriander turn up a lot. They were dusted on that rockfish fillet and simmered into the mustard-and-white-wine sauce that moistened the stewed chicken leg, served with mushrooms and basmati rice.
Cardamom and ginger inject joie de vivre into Elnazir’s version of onion soup. One night’s soup du jour was pleasing, too. So many exotic flavors rippled through the thick lentil and vegetable purée it reminded me of Indian dal.
Neatly diced potato, carrot and turnip surrounded a petite lamb shank, the meat nearly melting off the bone, the just-soft vegetables having basked for the right amount of time in the rich red-wine braise.
The rib-eye was smallish but precisely cross-hatched on the grill and carefully cooked to an even medium-rare. The steak shared a plate with shallot-laced haricots verts and a formidable potato gratin enriched with Comte cheese. Those sides comprise two-thirds of the vegetarian plate, which subs a fat, grilled Portobello mushroom cap for the steak.
Vegetarians also will welcome a whole roasted beet, sliced and reassembled with layers of whipped goat cheese and parsley: a jauntily striped reconstruction finished with fresh herbs and red-wine vinaigrette.
A basket of sliced baguette and a pot of butter cost $3 extra. I don’t mind a surcharge for quality ingredients, but on one visit the bread was stale. No amount of chardonnay-sprinkled butter with oak-smoked fleur de sel makes that easy to swallow.
We enjoyed the genial ministrations of a waitress who was familiar with many of the wines on a mostly French list that offers plenty of choice in the $30-$40 category.
If a couple starts with nibbles, say the addictive spicy-sweet mixed nuts tossed with fresh rosemary and fried shallots; if they follow that with appetizers, entrees and a dessert (I highly recommend the orange-almond cake); and if they order a modest bottle of wine, the bill can top $100.
You might easily spend that much in a trendy restaurant in places where people obsess over food: photograph it, talk about it, share it. Here, I noticed, people were engrossed in each other. A young woman home from college spooned soup while chattering nonstop to doting parents who absent-mindedly ate their steaks. A couple next to them on the banquette laughed and lingered, fingers entwined, over after-dinner coffee. Another duo sipped wine at the tiny bar, enjoying front-row seats of the sunset. It’s obvious people don’t come here just to be fed, but because A la Bonne Franquette fits within the context of their lives.
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