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French phrasing raises expectations too high

By Nadine Kam

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 01:46 a.m. HST, Jan 19, 2011


When I saw the menu at La Tour Cafe, I just about cried. I was so excited. It has all the simple sort of cafe sandwiches, sides and flatbreads (pizza) I want to eat, at reasonable prices.

It brought back warm, fuzzy memories of travel to other cities where simple fare like this is so common that no food writer would even bother writing about such generics. Yet here I would have to call it a step forward even though, honestly, it meets only the barest minimum standard of any small, street-corner express restaurant in New York or L.A., or Seattle or Portland, Ore.

Small, express and simple is all La Tour Cafe is meant to be, although from the street and by virtue of its address in the middle of nowhere, it has the appearance of a destination restaurant.

I'm sure this is just the first of what will be many more La Tour Cafes, and I wouldn't be surprised if one were to pop up in downtown Honolulu, in the heart of Kaimuki's eating district and in Kailua. Those are the kinds of places it should be, close to captive hubs of people hungry for something quick to get them through the morning and afternoon, as a matter of convenience.

LA TOUR'S roots are in another famous franchise, Ba-Le, which Thanh Lam started in 1984 to coincide with his baking business that catered to commercial clientele.

He built up La Tour Bakeshop with plans of expanding his business further, but the cafe is a separate project of his progeny Brandon and Trung Lam, and Ba-Le pastry chef Rodney Weddle.

I think many people will be quite happy with what they have to offer, which revolves around your daily bread, whether in the form of sandwiches, grilled panini, flatbreads (pizza) or tartines (best described as glorified bruschetta).

The star of the menu comes under the tartine category. Purists might quibble, but Croque Monsieur ($8.50), the classic, hearty grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich, is served in an under-the-broiler open-face format, on Pain La Tour topped with Black Forest ham, a few roasted tomato halves and Gruyere.

It's one of the best things on the menu, pleasantly gooey, rich and filling. There was also cheddar on mine, which some would consider sacrilege, but hey, I like cheddar.

Equally rich was a custardy, velvety quiche Lorraine ($5.50), made with gruyere and thin slices of ham. For some reason it's on the menu of sides, listed among such items as chicken tenders and pommes frites ($3). Maybe it was just a last-minute addition or didn't fit any other categories, or maybe it's because the slice itself is small. But like all the sandwiches, it's treated as an entree, served with a house salad of romaine and tomato halves, with homemade sweet pickles.

Other favorites were a turkey panini ($8.50) with provolone and the sharp zing of sun-dried tomato spread, and a sweetened chicken curry salad dotted with cranberries that fills a croissant sandwich ($7).

Pommes frites were a disappointment because they were just the typical fast-food skinny version. Using the French name had me imagining thick, hand-cut russets with just a light touch of pepper and kosher salt. Alas.

French onion soup ($3 cup, $4.25 bowl) was also a much thinner, cheeseless version than what you would find at a more traditional restaurant.

The few times I was there, a lot of people were ordering the La Tour Burger ($8.50), wagyu topped with caramelized onions, salsa verde and Havarti on a challah bun. It was OK, but I'm not sure it'll boot any entries off my top-10 list of burgers in town. I have to admit, though, my opinion was partially colored by the sorry fries that accompanied the dish.

As for the flatbreads, if you like the Papa John's sort of puffy, bready pizza crust, then you might go for these, but I'm more likely to stick to the V-Lounge or Inferno's Wood Fire Pizza with the crisp, thin crusts. I did like La Tour's grilled vegetable pizza, with its thin layer of tomato sauce and toppings of diced zucchini, eggplant, olives and peppers. I didn't expect so much flavor from such a small handful of vegetables.

But the worst was a special of beef ragout ($9.50) that was more like a thin beef stew. That, I could tolerate, but I found it rather insulting to the customer that in a dish measuring 4 by 4 inches and about an inch deep, there were nine huge, visible pieces of fat, more fat than beef. Why did that much fat go into the pot in the first place? Anyone purporting to strive for quality would start with the best ingredients.

For dessert, there is an array of macarons with a thick layer of flavorful fillings ranging from green tea to tart yuzu. These are more chewy than crispy, light and airy, but for those with a sweet tooth, macarons are always a welcome treat.

Service is rather confused. It's early, so unfamiliarity with the menu can be forgiven, but in the three times I was here, their attempts to repeat orders turned into my repeating the orders back to them. Learn to speak s-l-o-w-l-y.

As I said, the mix is a step forward and there for anyone to replicate if they could take it up a notch or two.

------

Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. E-mail nkam@staradvertiser.com.






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