Sally Rice / Special to The Bee

The menu at Willow Cafe & Sweetery in Folsom includes fresh local fruit as seasons permit.

Counter Culture: Folsom's Willow, east Sac's Les Baux each a delight

Published: Friday, Jun. 15, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 35TICKET

Discovering a cafe- bakery is always a good thing. You get the best of two worlds – breakfast and lunch items from a sandwich-salad menu, and breads and pastries from the baker's oven.

We visited two such places recently, each a delight in its own way:

Willow Cafe & Sweetery in Folsom

The patio of 4 1/2-month-old Willow is a well- designed, comfy place. Bright flowers spill from planter boxes. Two fountains make watery music. Yellow umbrellas shade tables of chatting diners.

Then there's the occasional roar of Harley-Davidson motorcycles overwhelming the white noise of car traffic flowing along Folsom-Auburn Road, separated from the patio by wood-slat fencing.

Even that rude intrusion can't spoil the enjoyment of the imaginative, substantial dishes coming from chef-owner Sarah Boudjakdji's kitchen.

Three lunch pals and I eagerly watched the delivery of brunch ($5.50 to $12) one recent Sunday morning. There was a scramble of fluffy eggs, manly chunks of tri-tip, mushrooms, garlic, onion and Swiss cheese; a breakfast sandwich (crisp turkey bacon, caramelized onion, jack cheese on house-made focaccia bread); luscious grilled albacore tuna with two tasty sauces; a surprisingly hefty vegetable sandwich; and good-looking sirloin sliders that were dry and underseasoned.

Of the sliders, one lunch pal said, "Putting sautéed mushrooms on top would have made this dish." A second added, "Or ballpark mustard."

The vegetable sandwich was one of the top dishes, a grand melange of tomato, avocado, basil, red onion, watermelon radish ("Oh, how cute, they look like watermelon slices!" a lunch pal exclaimed), toasted pine nuts and (not enough) aioli on flavor-filled whole-wheat bread trying to be toast.

One lunch pal picked up the last piece of turkey bacon and crunched it down.

"If turkey bacon ended up like this at our house, I would eat it more often," he said.

We were impressed by the freshness of the ingredients and their bold flavors and textures. We also liked that all the sauces and dressings are from scratch. But we agreed the breads could have been toasted darker, and the dry "breakfast potatoes" cubed smaller.

Inside the roomy dining room, we found a small baked-goods case with traditional and gluten-free offerings – breads, cookies, brownies, blondies and the like.

A few days later, we sat at the same patio table and sampled from the small-plates menu ($5 to $9). Rarely has a grilled artichoke with aioli (spiked with herbs from Willow's garden) been so perky.

Cold chunks of watermelon wed well with honey-balsamic vinegar, made tangy with feta cheese. The third dish – "fresh fruit and local cheeses" – was diverse with pear, apple, grapefruit, strawberries, candied walnuts, and blue, toma and white cheddar cheeses.

"I try to keep the menu seasonal so I can get as much local produce as possible," Boudjakdji said on the phone. "The beef is grass-fed and the chicken is free-range. I pay extra for that."

She added, "We're going to launch dinners in July, and we'll have a whole new menu."

P.S.: You rarely find house-made sodas, but Boudjakdji makes simple syrups from fruits and adds seltzer for not-too-sweet carbonated drinks – cherry-vanilla and orange-cranberry.

Les Baux Bakery & Bistro in east Sacramento

It's impossible to walk by the display case at Les Baux without lingering over the loaves of rustic breads, croissants (handsome, but dense), scones (perfectly textured), buttery raisin snails, foccacia with various toppings, dark cookies and more.

We sampled them all over several visits. In a word: Yum!

The bistro occupies the space once filled by Cassidy's and has been transformed into an airy, wood-and-tile showplace flooded with natural light.

The concise menu shows hot and cold sandwiches (five altogether), three salads and three soups ($4.50 to $9). There's also a five-item breakfast menu.

The hot Les Baux sandwich was a star – tender (if overdone) tri-tip with tangy Brie and caramelized onion on chewy baguette. Nicely assembled cold tuna with tomato, hard-cooked egg, olives, capers and arugula was helped by that same baguette.

We segued to the Saigon- aise sandwich, a cousin of the ever-popular Vietnamese "street food sandwich," banh mi. Slices of high-quality roasted pork joined remoulade (a creamy sauce used as a condiment in France), pickled carrot, thinly sliced cucumber and cilantro.

The puffy bread was too much for the ingredients, which could use a squirt of Sriracha chile sauce, though we loved the tang of raspberry vinaigrette on the field-fresh mixed-greens salad.

Of special interest is the fragrant coffee, each cup individually hand-brewed in a cleverly made drip-filter/ French press contraption.

"Here, I'm doing what I've been dreaming about," said owner Trong Nguyen on the phone. He is especially pleased with his huge, four-deck oven that cooks breads at 500 degrees on a stone hearth. "It makes (the loaves) crusty. We start making dough at midnight."

Changes are coming within the next few months, he said. "We will have an oyster bar, beer and wine, and French bistro dishes on a dinner menu. I'm (envisioning) a place that opens at 7 in the morning and closes at 9 or 10 in the evening."

Meanwhile, we'll go back for breakfast and a bowl of French onion soup.

And more pastries.

Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni at (916) 321-1128.

WILLOW CAFE & SWEETERY

Where: 13405 Folsom Blvd., Folsom, in Lake Natoma Plaza, behind an Arco gas station

Hours: Lunch is 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Small-plates menu is 2-6 p.m. Mondays- Saturdays. Weekend brunch is 10 a.m.-2 p.m. The restaurant will be closed June 25-July 1.

Food: three stars

Ambience: three star

How much: $-$$

Information: (916) 294-7805, www.willowcafeandsweetery.com

LES BAUX BAKERY & BISTRO

Where: 5090 Folsom Blvd., east Sacramento

Hours: 7 a.m.-3 p.m. daily

Food: three stars

Ambience: three stars

How much: $-$$

Information: (916) 739-1348, www.lesbauxbakery.com

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Read more articles by Allen Pierleoni



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