Allen Pierleoni

Lunch? Make a French culinary stop on Howe by way of Asia

Stacked shelves crowded with hundreds of pastries greet customers at Paris Baguette.
Stacked shelves crowded with hundreds of pastries greet customers at Paris Baguette. apierleoni@sacbee.com

First Impressions visits dining spots in the region that are new or have undergone recent transitions. Have a candidate for First Impressions? Email us at taste@sacbee.com.

Over the years, the stretch of Howe Avenue from Fair Oaks Boulevard to Arden Way has evolved into a food court of sorts (remember T.G.I. Fridays?), but with choking vehicular traffic instead of foot traffic. It’s lined with the likes of Original Mel’s, Twin Peaks, La Bou, Boiling Avenue, Bucco di Beppo, Sourdough Co., Red Lobster, Arigato Sushi and many others.

The newest player is Paris Baguette Cafe, specializing in delicious, gorgeous baked goods and toasted sandwiches, some imaginative, some not so much. The cafe is part of the international food conglomerate SPC Group of Seoul, Korea, whose mission statement is all about “delivering happiness to the world.” Unhappily, calls to its Northern California office in Santa Clara were not returned.

SPC has about 3,500 company-owned and franchised Paris Baguettes throughout Asia and France. More than 50 operate in the U.S., mostly in California. Plans are to open two more in Sacramento.

The new Sacramento franchise is operated by the Blue Nami Group, the three-store mini-chain of sushi restaurants in Folsom, Roseville and Orangevale, said Luke So, vice president of both operations.

Menu: We were overwhelmed by more than 100 choices of pastry-based items, many with French and Asian accents – feuillete (puff pastry) au chocolat, red bean brioche, sweet rice doughnuts, excellent croissants (the garlic-minis were addictive), sweet potato and blueberry-cream cheese pastries, egg tart, Danish with cream cheese and custard, croquettes, Hawaiian sausage bread, potato and cheese pastry, ham and cheese panini, hash brown bread, chestnut bread, chocolate cream bread and on and on.

Plus beautiful cakes (whole and by the slice) and a rainbow of macarons, those scrumptious almond-flavored, meringue-based French cookies.

The sandwich board isn’t as exciting, offering eight toasted combos including grilled caprese, tuna and veggie melts, bacon and Brie, and pastrami-Havarti baguette.

Price point: Pastry-based items and breads range from $1.70 to $6 per item. Toasted sandwiches are $7.50 to $8.

Ambiance: The room is strikingly handsome, with a stop-you-in-your-tracks display of pastry-based goods as the centerpiece, greeting you just inside the front door. An industrial feel comes from Edison lights hanging over a long communal wood-slab table, and exposed duct-work in a high ceiling. Tables and booths round out the dining area. A second patio is being built.

Drinks: A slew of hot and cold coffee drinks, along with juices and sodas. Also, frozen frappes and smoothies.

Service: Conscientious and fast, but the servers are made to wear uniforms that promote the French-fashion stereotype of the long-sleeve, horizontally striped pullover shirt and beret (though the headgear at PB is more cap than beret). Actually, it’s a pretty good look.

First impressions: We liked the fun tweak of the usual cafeteria-type template. In this case, you lay a paper liner on a fancy bamboo-looking tray and grab a pair of metal tongs before perusing the pastry display. Pick and choose as you cruise. Careful, though: The items look so good you could tong yourself into paying for a heap of pastries at the cash register, likely more than you want to eat at one sitting.

Our toasted sandwiches – chicken pesto, and maple bacon-cheese melt (with side salads) – were tasty, but way light on the protein. For the price, we wanted more. Sandwiches are pre-assembled and finished in a toaster oven, and had a “rushed” mass-produced feel on the plate. Which, in this restaurant concept, is unavoidable.

Let’s be clear that we visited during PB’s “soft opening,” traditionally the week that new restaurants give themselves to resolve any issues before their formally announced “hard opening.”

Still... We paid for our pastries at the counter (they were nicely boxed for us), ordered coffee drinks and items from the sandwich board, and got our queue number. We were told to find a seat, our number would be called, and we were then to proceed to the pick-up counter. Problem was, the room was so echoy and loud that we didn’t hear any numbers being called at all, so we sat till we figured it out.

Another issue was the line. There aren’t enough toaster ovens to move the number of toasted sandwiches being ordered, so the line backed up. Way back. Even if you’re buying a single pastry, you must wait in a long line of customers who are waiting for their toasted sandwiches. Why not have one line for pastries, another for toasted sandwiches? Or add more toaster ovens? Adding confusion at the order/cashier counter were awkwardly placed stanchions. Is this the line? Or is that the line?

One last thing: Baguettes are sold with other breads in PB’s pastry area, and are encased in a tight wrapping of plastic and paper. Rule of thumb: Never store a rustic loaf inside plastic because the loaf will lose its fresh crunch and turn spongy. Which is just what happened to the beautiful baguette we brought back to the office.

Try it if: You love pastries and restaurant openings, or find loud crowds exciting.

Forget it if: You’re dieting or would rather enjoy lunch in calmer surroundings.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

Paris Baguette Cafe

Where: 1229 Howe Ave., Sacramento

Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily

Information: 916-925-5006, www.parisbaguetteusa.com

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