Allen Pierleoni / apierleoni@sacbee.com

Honey-Dijon mustard and house-made pickle chips accompany a croque monsieur at Chloé's Cafe in Santa Rosa.

Counter Culture: Chloe's French Cafe in Santa Rosa

Published: Friday, Sep. 21, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 32TICKET

We fired up the Batmobile the other day to see where it would take us. Two hours later we were on Highway 101 at the exit to historic Santa Rosa, 50-some miles north of San Francisco.

The town is the Sonoma County seat and a gateway to wine country. Santa Rosa is known as the "Place of Plenty," and sure enough, there's plenty to do and see if you nose around. Consider: the Charles M. "Peanuts" Schulz Museum, the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens, Safari West wildlife preserve and the deliciously retro Petrified Forest, which brought to mind the 1936 gangster flick "The Petrified Forest" with Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis.

Self-guided walking tours take explorers past the historic buildings and vintage architecture of Railroad Square and the neighborhoods of the West End, St. Rose and Cherry Street. Plus, this tidbit: Director Alfred Hitchcock filmed "Shadow of a Doubt" in Santa Rosa in 1943.

The best place for day-trippers to get started is the Santa Rosa Convention & Visitors Bureau, housed in the former railroad depot, a red-brick structure built in 1904 at 9 Fourth St., (707) 577-8674; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

A walkabout around nearby Railroad Square was a discovery of restaurants and wine bars, but we'd heard about Chloé's French Cafe and Patisserie a few miles away and made it our destination.

Chloé's opened six years ago as a catering company and soon expanded into a cafe-bakery, with casual catering on weekends.

Chloé's is owned by Alain and Marc Pisan, who are brothers, and Renée Pisan, who is married to Alain. Alain is the pastry chef, Marc runs the front of the house and oversees the wine program, and Renée is the head chef. "Everything we serve is made from scratch," she said on the phone days after our visit.

Alain and Marc grew up in Saint-Tropez, France, where they worked in their parents' patisserie. The family's history as artisan bakers goes back a century.

As for Chloé, she is the delivery "truckette" that the Pisan brothers shipped to Santa Rosa from their parents' bakery "as a reminder of the traditions that our parents began." She's parked near the cafe's entrance.

Let's pause a moment: You can go to Chloé's website at www.chloesco.com and find driving directions to the restaurant. It's tucked inside the Landmark Executive Center, a 103,750- square-foot medical office building northwest of town. Parking will not be a problem, but finding the cafe- bakery might be. So we recommend our strategy: Type the address into a GPS and follow the prompts.

Finally inside the cafe, we looked at the specials on the wall-mounted chalkboard and cruised the well-stocked standard menu ($4 to $15). We saw breakfast items, eight salads (including duck breast confit), five cold sandwiches (tuna Nicoise, curry chicken), six hot sandwiches (ham and Brie, smoked Willie Bird turkey with cheese and artichokes), and six specialty items (quiche, crepes).

Alas, the baked-goods case was nearly empty ("Get here early or call ahead," was the counter person's advice), so we missed out on palmiers, croissants, scones and napoleons. Not to stress, though: We did find a very good lemon curd tart, an excellent round of vanilla bean cheesecake, and a so-so chocolate eclair filled with dense chocolate custard.

The lightly decorated inside dining room had an unavoidable "office space" vibe, so we found a table on the breezy outdoor patio, next to a small grove of redwood trees (with some traffic noise drifting over from Highway 101).

We started with bowls of roasted mushroom and green onion bisque, a thin but silken-rich broth made chunky with fresh mushrooms and carrot.

"I'm not a big mushroom soup fan, but this one has won me over," said one lunch pal.

Other good things followed. Baked mac 'n' cheese was a bubbling-hot ramekin brimming with tender orecchiette ("little ears") pasta, ham, green onion, more mushrooms and three cheeses, topped with crunchy breadcrumbs.

Croque monsieur is the classic French grilled sandwich of ham and cheese. Chloé's imaginative version is applewood-smoked ham, and domestic Swiss and sharp Gruyère cheeses inside slices of grilled white bread coated with mozzarella cheese, thin layers of béchamel sauce (white sauce) and a touch of Dijon mustard. The sides of housemade honey-Dijon mustard and house-made pickle chips were first rate.

The crepe du jour turned out to be the top choice at our table. Tender chunks of lemon chicken and gobs of melted Swiss cheese were wrapped inside a flavorful buckwheat crepe and topped with – yep – more delectable slices of roasted fresh mushrooms.

Our fall-apart quiche with spinach, mushrooms and asiago cheese was fluffy, but way too eggy, wet and in need of seasoning. Shakes of salt and pepper helped bring it around.

"There's some love in this salad," said another lunch pal as we forked into a melange of fresh greens, crisp apple, cucumber, red onion and red pepper. The accompanying balsamic dressing wowed us with its body and depth of flavor.

So, what's the last word? We agreed to the mantra, "We would come back for the (fill in the blank)."


CHLOE'S FRENCH CAFE AND PATISSERIE

Where: 3883 Airway Drive, Suite 145, Santa Rosa

Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily for breakfast and lunch

Food: Three 1/2 stars

Ambience: Three stars (for patio seating)

How much: $$

Information: (707) 528-3095, www.chloesco.com

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