Restaurant Review - Cafe Alsace

Simply delightful: Cafe Alsace satisfies with homey, regional dishes

I must have passed Cafe Alsace on Decatur's East Ponce de Leon Avenue a dozen times before I realized there was a restaurant behind the charming curtained windows and weathered door. And then I went in only because of the handwritten note taped to one of the windows advertising French provincial tablecloths for sale.

And voila! There on the counter — amid the riot of saturated marigold- colored and vibrant red fabric-covered walls, beyond the small enameled Paris place signs and bottles of flavored oil, the bicycle hanging high on the wall and the potted tree festooned with tiny white lights smack in the center of the small room — was one of the most exquisite fruit tarts I have ever seen.

Not beautiful, mind you, in the sense of artificially artistic. Beautiful in the honest, earthy way that defines the heartily Germanic food of the Alsace region of France: sauerkraut, pork, Strasbourg geese (in the form of paté de foie gras), salmon from the Rhine and glorious tarts from whatever fruit does not find its way into wine or fragrant liqueurs.

If your idea of French cuisine is some vague notion of snails and too- rich sauces, you should know that the motto of the great Escoffier, who came to fame as the chef of the Paris Ritz, was "Faites simple" — make it simple. Following his own advice, he nevertheless managed to invent more than 7,000 dishes.

That is roughly 6,990 more selections than appear on the Cafe Alsace menu. Not all of the dishes are heavenly. Take the Quennelle de Poisson, for instance. These halibut, smoked salmon and shitake mushroom discs served with a tangy saffron and pink peppercorn sauce should be puffs of melt-in-the-mouth lightness. Instead, the ones I tried were hard, heavy cylinders with a decidedly bitter cast.

Nearly everything else, however, should make you happy. Not least because there is no other place in town where it is possible to order Canard aux Pruneaux (duck leg with a prune and red wine sauce) or Paté du Chef (chicken liver, bacon, shallot and port paté).

And spaetzle lovers, take note. Three — three — ways to savor the small kitchen's tender, delectable traditional Alsatian noodles: Spaetzle aux Legumes (noodles mixed with spinach, bell peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms and onions), Spaetzle a l'Alsacienne (baked noodles topped with ham, onions, cream and cheese) or Spaetzle au Saumon (baked noodles topped with salmon chunks, garlic, basil, cream and cheese).

Classic Boeuf Bourguignon is, miraculously, available at both lunch and dinner. I have had better luck with this dish at dinner than at lunch. Principally, I believe, because the key ingredient in beef Burgundy is time. Time to meld the flavors of the seared beef, mushrooms and carrots. Time for the red wine marinade to seep in. Time for the thin juices to thicken. Perhaps it simply is not ready at lunch. By the dinner hour, however, things are much improved. (Even better, take some home and reheat it the next night.)

It is not necessary, though, to order anything that substantial. To my mind, nothing beats what I consider the specialty of the house: Tarte a l'Oignon, an amalgam of eggs and onions as golden and glorious as it can be. The crust is good in spite of its inordinate thickness. But even if it were not, I would not be able to tear myself away from the creamy, savory filling. Even the appetizer portion is huge — a full quarter of a pie. It is so beautiful in its straightforwardness that this solitary thing is my favorite meal at Cafe Alsace.

Still, if you are thinking this all sounds too hot and heavy, there are several salads on the small menu, to be dressed in either of two delicious and piquant dressings: an Herbes de Provence and five peppercorn vinaigrette balsamic vinegar; and a walnut oil and apple cider vinaigrette. In addition to a summer salad (Salade d'Ete) of green leaf lettuce, smoked salmon and prosciutto garnished with cucumbers and tomatoes, and salads based on prosciutto or salmon, there is a lovely French Riviera salad comprised of shrimp, corn, sun-dried tomatoes and basil on a bed of green leaf lettuce. At lunch, besides the salads and a tasty Sandwich du Jardin — a baguette or croissant filled with tomatoes, olive oil, herbes de Provence, olives and mozzarella — there is always a Crepe du Jour, a Soupe du Jour, a salmon quiche and Quiche Lorraine, and an intriguing Fricassee du Jour — pan-sauteed chicken chunks daubed with the sauce of the day.

No matter how much or how little you have eaten, however, on no account should you pass up the dessert tart. Even if you think you are full. This ethereal dessert is nothing more, and nothing less, than barely sweetened fresh fruit. One of the cafe's three young French owners makes it herself each day. If you go early, it will still be warm, right out of the oven.