Everyone loves Au Comptoir, a new classic French café-bistro in Kitsilano. I love it, too, but from a slightly different perspective.
While it may be true that one can linger here all day – over café au lait and pain au chocolat in the morning to red wine and entrecôte frites at night – this is not “the most authentic Parisian-café experience in Vancouver” (Georgia Straight). Sure, tightly packed tables, distressed tiled floors and roiling conversation might channel “the spirit” of a charming corner boîte in Rue de la Grande-Chaumière (Vancouver Magazine).
But the “buttery leek tarts cheerfully served up amidst a café din” (VanCity Buzz) by no means “instantly transport” me to Paris. If it did, a notoriously arrogant garçon de café most certainly would have rolled his eyes and sniffed when I asked where the restroom was. If you have any doubts about the snooty inflexibility of Parisian waiters, please refresh your memory by reading the hilariously droll character profile in last week’s WSJ.
The waiters at Au Comptoir – in crisp blue shirts, ties and long aprons – are far too warm and charming to be classic Parisian Monsieurs, even if Paris is whence they all came. (The sole female server is from Quebec.) If Paris, they would never laugh so loosely, smile so broadly or be so quick to offer a third complimentary bread basket. (Free baguette and salted butter! What a wonderful old-fashioned novelty.)
“Parisian ambience minus the arrogance” is not a concept that would neatly fit the marketing shorthand. But owners Julien Aubin (from France’s Franche-Comte) and Maxime Bettili (Loire Valley) agree that haughtiness is an attitude they have explicitly tried to avoid.
“I worked in Paris for seven years,” Mr. Bettili said by phone. “I left because, well, Paris is full of Parisians. It’s not very friendly.”
Huff. Sniff. Excusez-moi. But I do rest my case.
Au comptoir means “at the counter.” And the handcrafted tin bar certainly is a showpiece. Custom-made with moulded edges and a rasped patina by the 80-year-old Atelier Nectoux workshop in Dax, France, the counter stretches nearly seven meters along one side of the restaurant.
Behind the bar, white subway tiles and a living-wall garden frame the requisite bottles of pastis and cassis, plus a vintage La San Marco espresso machine. The coffee, served in traditional black ceramic glassware, is deeply dark-roasted and delicious. (None of that thin, sour, hipster coffee nonsense here.)
Dining tables are repurposed from antique Singer sewing machine stands with cast iron treadles. Small round café tables are squeezed side by side against a long leather bench. You may have to wipe a few crumbs off the seats. But the room’s slight dishevelment, along with table settings that include folded cocktail napkins in glasses and waiting bottles of tap water, is part of the romantic French café experience.
Chef de cuisine Daniel McGee was a sous-chef at PiDGiN and Pied-à-Terre. At Au Comptoir, his traditional café menu features nothing but the classics.
Light salads are dressed with hefty vinaigrettes redolent of mustard and macerated shallot. Ladies who lunch (and men watching their waistlines) will love salade vercingétorix, with its soft-poached egg oozing into baby gem lettuce cups that hold sharp gruyère gratings and slippery white anchovies.
Tarte aux poireaux confits (confit leek) is a bright green tower of watercress and frisée dusted with crumbled buttermilk ricotta and wafer-thin, utterly addictive fried leek chips, all built atop a flaky yet sturdy pastry podium. Blanquette de veau (white veal stew) boasts a creamy texture without any odious flour remnants from its roux, bright acidity and a nice contrast of fork-tender meat and firmly roasted carrots.
Mr. McGee’s cooking reminds me of the proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove – elegant and finessed, but packing full-bodied strength and solid punches of flavour.
Pommes dauphine accompanying the skirt steak was the only misstep I tasted. Not to be confused with pommes dauphinoise (a sliced potato gratin, here served with the duck breast), pommes dauphine are deep-fried potato puffs made from mashed potatoes mixed with savoury choux pastry. The shells, while crisp and golden, had a heavy, greasy lip-coating mouthfeel; the creamed centre was bland and in desperate need of salt.
The tender steak bavette, drizzled with a robust Roquefort sauce, would have been better served with the kitchen’s thick, golden hand-cut fries. I had them with steak tartare (available on the lunch menu only). This is a superb version of the oft-mangled raw meat dish. The steak was cold and freshly chopped, vibrantly spiced with onions and capers. It was premixed with raw egg yolk, but done with a light hand so the protein didn’t emulsify into milk and the cubes held their shape. Bravo, chef.
The best thing about French café dining is that you never feel rushed, no matter how busy the restaurant. This gives you time to digest and linger over dessert. And the desserts here are extremely tempting, displayed as they are in a rotating carousel case at the back of the room. Dark chocolate mousse has satisfying heft. The cream filling in the Paris-brest was a bit hard and stale, but the baked choux pastry wheel was sublime. I look forward to trying the pastry chef’s house-made croissants.
Au Comptoir is a very good neighbourhood café-bistro. It may not transport you to Paris, but it might entice you to travel to Kitsilano.