Story and photos by Mark Sterling-Ogle, March 26, 2015.
I’ve driven by the French Grocery, at the corner of Seventh and Maryland avenues in Phoenix, many a time, but never made the time to stop in and try their “continental & creole” … until recently, when I had the opportunity to grab lunch with a friend.
The café/market was most certainly a convenience store at some point, with big plate-glass windows that allow natural sunlight to flood the dining area. There are only a few tables, enough to seat a maximum of about 30 guests, and the space is lined with deli-style cases and a wide variety of vintages and varietals.
While there’s an emphasis on French collections, with a mixture of Italian, Spanish and German, there is also quite an array of small producers whose craft wines speak to the region’s specialty and terroir. Guests are invited to enjoy a bottle in-house with their meal for a $10 corkage fee.
The cheese selection is also eclectic, with whole wheels on display. Although the selection varies, an array of soft, semi-soft, Bleu and aged cheeses are regularly available.
We wandered around, among browsing shoppers, until my friend spied a basket of menus and a sign directing us to seat ourselves. After perusing the menu, making selections, and realizing we had yet to be acknowledged, someone from behind the counter informed us that there was no table service during lunch. This cleared up the confusion and cued us to head to the counter to order.
For sipping, I selected a delightful Sancerre, 100-percent sauvignon blanc, which provided a perfect balance of citrus and mineral tones. Don’t expect the bottle to be presented with traditional wine service here; ours was opened behind the counter and simply poured into our glasses without a taste or nod.
For savoring, I went with favorite of mine: Saint-André. This cheese has a soft buttery texture, tangy and edible rind and tastes like an intense version of Brie. I asked that it be opened and plated with a small, freshly baked baguette so it could come to room temperature (for enjoying after our meal).
Then I ordered several selections for the two of us to share and, although there was only one employee preparing lunch items, the plates were delivered right to our table.
The soup du jour was a wonderfully seasoned shrimp and corn bisque. The shrimp were not overcooked and offered a nice ‘pop’ when bitten into, even though the soup itself should have been served much warmer.
The roast beef sandwich Au Jus, easily our favorite selection of the day, comprised a large, freshly baked baguette and healthy slabs of slow roasted beef (horseradish mayo or garlic aioli optional). The pan drippings, served on the side for plunging the bread into were a perfectly salted treat.
Around for a century, croque-monsieur is simply a grilled ham and cheese. It originated in French cafés and bars as a quick snack. Typically, Gruyere or Emmental cheese is used and then finished with a bit of béchamel sauce, also known as white sauce, which is made from a roux and milk. It is one of the mother sauces of French and Italian cuisine and adds another layer of luxury to an already rich sandwich.
Here, the bread is cooked with a panini grill, giving it a unique presentation. They do use Gruyere cheese and thinly sliced ham. I opted to have it croque-madame style – so named because the egg resembles an old fashioned ladies hat – and it came out with a perfectly cooked over-medium fried egg perched atop. Unfortunately, the ham seemed to get lost betwixt the large pieces of toast on this buttery and crunchy delight.
Our last entrée was a crêpe with spinach and mushrooms in Mornay sauce – a béchamel sauce with shredded or grated cheese added. While the two crêpes were beautifully cooked and indeed stuffed with sliced mushrooms, the spinach seemed bland and was almost certainly frozen at one time. The sauce was not much help either, perhaps due to the cool serving temperature.
None of the sandwiches come with side dishes, but chips or pomme frites (fries) are available for a nominal charge. When the pomme frites I ordered finally made it out of the kitchen, I found the mix of shoestring and thin sweet potato fries not as hot as I would have preferred.
I cleared our table for dessert (meaning, I was forced to move our dishes to one of all the open tables to make room) and went to the pastry case with high hopes. My friend is a fan of creme brulee, but I was skeptical of the custard in small aluminum pie tins on display, but we decided to give it a go anyway. The top was caramelized perfectly, but we weren’t pleased with the consistency of the dessert as we got closer to the bottom of the dish.
The dinner menu has classic French dishes: beef bourguignon, shrimp étouffée, and les moules marinieres (a large bowl of PEI mussels steamed in wine, shallots, tarragon), all sounding very nice. The header of the menu, however, is now quite foreshadowing to me:
“We do things a bit differently at night. Have a seat, a glass of wine and enjoy your company. Good food comes to those who wait. If you are in a hurry, we are happy to refer you any one of the fast food restaurants that dot our landscape in Phoenix. We are deliberately different.”
After our luncheon experience, I think I will be satisfying my craving for French cuisine someplace else.
5345 N. Seventh Ave., Phoenix
7 a.m.-10 p.m. Tues-Fri
8 a.m.-10 p.m. Sat