Allen Pierleoni

First impressions: Cafe Plan B in midtown

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 .

Outside of France, preparing French cuisine can be tricky. All those sauces, all that time.

Making it look easy when it’s really not was Julia Child’s still-viable “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” which rocked the meat-and-potatoes world of American housewives when it appeared in 1961.

We’ll guarantee you won’t find a copy of that treasure anywhere near Cafe Plan B’s kitchen, where a recent lunch reminded us of how good French-accented food can be.

The cafe is the casual cousin of the more formal Plan B in Arden Town Center, and offers an interesting concept.

“We believe it’s time for a French (version of) Olive Garden or Cafe Bernardo, but more of a French cafe,” said co-owner Lionel Lucas, who prefers to be called simply “Lucas.” He’s in business with his wife, Irina, and Franck Soler, who has worked in the restaurant industry in New York City and San Francisco.

“People can hang out here with their laptops,” Lucas said. “They can spend $10 and be happy or spend $300 and be happy.”

“Plan C” could be to open more cafes (“The next would be in Davis or Vacaville”), predicated on how this one performs. “This is a town where you build a business slowly,” Lucas said.

Menu: It’s well-planned and varied, with many French twists. French onion soup is there, of course, along with 11 sandwiches (including both croque monsieur and croque madam, and a hamburger), escargot among the appetizers, six salads, Prince Edward Island mussels six ways, trout in brown butter, roasted chicken with rosemary jus, and more.

Our tartlette with reblochon cheese, wild mushrooms, bacon and crème fraîche was delicate and creamy (“Fabulous!” said the lunch pal), flawed only by the tough, brittle edges of the baked pastry dough.

A generous heap of plump mussels were succulent in a sauce of celery, pancetta, thyme and cream, topped with curls of sautéed shallots. We mopped up the sauce with crisp crostini. Thin, crisp french fries dashed with a confetti of herbes de Provence were the ideal pairing.

A hot dog for $10? Yeah, but not just any old wiener. This is a tasty lamb merguez wrapped in Swiss emmental cheese on a chewy baguette, with spicy Dijon mustard and a salad on the side. FYI, a merguez is a spicy sausage with roots in North Africa, and very popular in France.

“I’m an iced tea snob, and I can tell you this is fresh-brewed,” said the lunch pal. She was right.

Price point: Not inexpensive, because care and quality don’t come cheap. Dishes range from $6 (green salad) to $23 (New York steak au poivre, which means it has a peppercorn crust). One of the owners’ concerns is surely the competition from less-pricey neighboring restaurants.

Ambiance: What used to be the funky Capitol Dawg has been transformed into a strikingly handsome showplace with an open kitchen and a patio that manages to blend the outdoors with the indoors. The color scheme is in pleasing shades of gray, brown and cream, perfect colors to complement the framed posters on the walls. Ceiling fans revolve over the tables and booths. The oversized light globes could be blinding, but aren’t.

Drinks: The full bar offers the usual cocktails. More interesting is the wine list

of California and French reds and whites. Beers

come from France, Belgium and Germany, a nice change from long, confusing lists

of local craft beers the average diner has never heard of.

Service: Co-owner Franck Soler was our server this day, showing charm, humor and a playful joie de vivre. Delivery of the dishes from the kitchen was slow, presumably because of the care taken for each one. Or maybe the pace was caused by something else. Which is appreciated by some, but might not fly with a time-pressed local lunch crowd accustomed to hustling in and out of restaurants on the quick. The dinner crowd could bring a more leisurely dynamic.

First impressions: Cafe Plan B could be a winner if the fickle midtown lunch and dinner crowds adopt it as their own. The next step would be to segue into a destination for diners outside the immediate area. The question is: Will they return after their initial “curiosity visits” and choose it over the glut of other restaurants along this corridor – Jack’s Urban Eats, Paesanos, Rubicon Brewing Co., Zocalo, Waterboy, Mulvaney’s B&L, Press Bistro and Aioli?

Try it if: You want to elevate your lunchtime dining experience and are willing to pay for it, or if you just like French-style food any time.

Forget it if: You’re in a hurry and on a budget.