Carla Meyer

Dining review: Les Baux is setting up well

Blair Anthony Robertson
Blair Anthony Robertson

When we first visited Les Baux in May, I saw plenty of potential, especially with the underseasoned yet elegant sandwiches, which looked better than they tasted.

But we also left this new east Sacramento eatery somewhat confused and more than a little curious about what Les Baux would be known for.

A coffee shop? A bakery? A sandwich spot? A big hit? Or a monumental flop? Was Les Baux just being modest? Cautious? Or would it always be too careful for its own good?

Now, all these months later, as Les Baux has settled in and found its footing, we have our answer – or the makings of one.

It's eclectic. It's good. It's easy. It's fun. It's relaxing. It's getting better, growing slowly. And it has the potential to be very, very good, pretty darn cool and extraordinarily interesting.

The breads, which are baked out in the open in a sophisticated and super-expensive setup, are excellent, including masterful, picture-perfect, crisp and chewy baguettes, along with a country white loaf made in the style and tradition of a French levain. The latter bread is also used for the French toast at breakfast, which is easily the best French toast in the city (yes, better than the famous French toast at that place next to the movie theater on Broadway, where all those trinkets on the walls continue to traumatize me).

The pastries, including savory tarts with wonderfully flaky and tender crusts, may be even better than the breads. The croissants? Some of the best I've ever had – subtle and sophisticated, tender, light and tasty.

That makes Les Baux a very good bakery, trending toward a great bakery. But this place wants to be more than that.

When it opened last spring, it was mostly sandwiches on the menu. Slowly, it expanded. Now, it's a real bistro, with a $10-and-under dinner menu that's smart, stylish, modest and consistently good, and a wine list that's just really cool – every wine is $6 by the glass and $25 for a bottle. No posturing, no snobbery and no BS. All of the wines are good, none great.

The food is likewise affordable, even if the prices don't always make sense.

Take the steak frites – that's bistro-speak for steak and french fries. If Les Baux is going to offer that, it has to be a steak like you'll find at the great little bistros in all the quaint little French villages.

What do you know? Les Baux pulls it off – and for $10.

That, of course, is an amazing price for a steak that is actually edible. This one is more than that. It's tender, lean, tasty and worth twice what they charge. It may be the best deal in the entire city. The steak is cooked sous vide, which is a modernist technique used at restaurants such as the French Laundry, and then finished in the pan to create that tasty Maillard reaction that brings out the flavor in beef.

The steak is served with a tasty yet simple sauce – a little bit of the French onion soup, a dash of brandy, some green peppercorns, and a splash of cream once it reduces.

Which is great, all of it – but it's also problematic. Smart people eat at Les Baux, and smart people are going to eventually say, "Wait a minute. If you can do a steak dinner for 10 bucks, how is it you're going to charge me $5 for a side of bacon at breakfast? By comparison, shouldn't the bacon scale down to about 18 cents?"

Same with the sandwiches at lunch, which are much better than they were last spring. I ordered the tri-tip sandwich with caramelized onions ($9) and a side of very good fries ($4) and it cost $2 more than the steak. In other words, I would be a genius to order the steak and fries and a fool to get the sandwich and fries.

The pound of mussels is another good deal for $9. The soups are $6.50 and have vivid flavors and creamy textures. The lobster bisque is first-rate, too, sweet and savory, with that thick, velvetfinish. But it costs a buck-fifty less than the steak dinner.

I could belabor the price-value continuum, but I'll let the owner tweak and adjust – and explain – as things continue to evolve.

Turns out, the proprietors know what they're doing.

Les Baux is owned and operated by the savvy, wise, pragmatic and quirky Trong Nguyen and his wife, Annie Ngo. The couple also own the very successful La Bou restaurant chain, along with Capricorn Coffee in San Francisco. Nguyen started the popular Lemon Grass restaurant years ago with his ex-wife, Mai Pham.

A geneticist by training, the Vietnamese-born Nguyen has a boundless curiosity about all kinds of things. He learned about croissants when he was a grad student. He studied how they were made, became fascinated with the intricate laminations – the many layers of butter and dough – the temperature that works best and how to streamline the process.

He even landed a weekend job at a bakery years ago so he could satisfy his obsession with croissants. Here he was, a part-time, highly educated baker who could go on and on about Watson and Crick in two languages.

Now he is something of a casual eatery magnate, overseeing the La Bou empire of 24 restaurants. (He and his wife own eight; the rest are franchised.) He continues to obsess and learn and invent. The coffee, he tells me, is made one cup at a time in a process he created and should get patented.

The Italian-made deck ovens are so heavily fortified that when they are turned off at 500 degrees at 7 a.m. (the bakers come in just after midnight and work while the city sleeps), the ovens are still 450 degrees by 3 p.m.

Nguyen wants to do more with this impressive little joint. He wants to bake more bread, but first he needs to sell more bread. I can help with that: If folks knew how good this bread was, they would be lined up down the block to buy baguettes, the levain and the superior rye loaves Nguyen insists on baking daily even if nobody buys them.

The menu is small, but it's going to grow. This isn't one of those places with lots of style and technique, but it really could grow into that.

The staff of young servers is uneven. Some were very good while others struggled with all the little details that need to look easy, like noticing I am missing my fork or serving breakfast – my breakfast, turns out – to the table of 10 when our table of two ordered first. More training and more oversight will shore up those kinds of missteps.

Nguyen is careful not to try to do too much too soon. It will be quirky and endlessly interesting, run by a quirky and endlessly interesting guy who just happens to have an advanced degree in genetics.

When he gets there, when he realizes his dream, Les Baux just might be one of those great, charming bistros and bakeries that folks will love for as long as they live.

Les Baux

5090 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento

(916) 739-1348

Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday and Monday; 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday.

Beverage options: Wine and beer

Vegetarian friendly: Limited

Noise level: Moderate

Overall ★ ★ 1/2 (out of 4 stars)

Les Baux has emerged – and in some aspects flourished – since it opened last spring. What an intriguing combination of top-flight bakery, coffee spot and casual bistro. The menu is limited. The prices are sometimes excellent and sometimes hard to reconcile. Taking care of all the little things, from service issues to the fact that we can't hear the music at certain tables, will help this rating improve.

Food ★ ★ ★

When you factor in the excellent breads and the stellar pastries, the food here ranges from superb to so-so, with most of the menu somewhere in between. Fantastic French toast, good sandwiches and soups, and a $10 steak frites dinner that will make even snobby, grumpy, Francophile tightwads smile.

Service ★ ★

Uneven, but that's to be expected. We heard one server try to explain the name of the "3 Day French Toast" by saying the bread "bakes" for two days, then admitting she doesn't really understand baking – yet she works in a bakery. Baking bread for more than, say, an hour, would be insane. Three of the servers were very good. A little more training and attention to detail will bring this up.

Ambience ★ ★ 1/2

They've done wonders with this room since it was Cassidy's Family Restaurant. Plenty of interesting wood here and there, including untreated tables purchased as scraps from a company that makes shuffleboards for cruise ships. But there's room for improvement. The well-appointed bakery is open and visible to the dining room, yet there's no baking going on – and nothing fun for us to look at – during regular restaurant hours. We'd love to see some hot baguettes pulled from those very expensive Italian ovens. And the music? It's hard to hear. And let there be art on those bare walls.

Value ★ ★ ★

The steaks frites is $10 – and it's good. 'Nuff said. Yet, because that price is so very good, some of the other prices left us scratching our heads, like $5 for a side of bacon. No big deal. For dinner, everything is $10 or less. And the wine list has the best pricing we've seen anywhere – every glass is $6, every bottle $25.