A La Bonne Franquette's Mystifying Popularity

A French eatery packs 'em in, despite miserly habits and mediocre food.

Assigning a price to anything people are accustomed to getting for free is a star-crossed proposition. In the digital realm, consumers gripe about having to pay for music and news content. And in restaurants, customers—especially those who came of dining age in an era when a choice of soup or salad was rolled into entrée prices—are prone to complain about the cost of bottled water, soda refills, and extra salad dressing.

The tensest battles in the ongoing restaurant surcharge fight have been waged over grains, yet an impressive number of high-end restaurants in Seattle have swayed their guests with arguments that artisan bread and imported butter have a higher value than the specks of pepper ground over pasta or the sugar served with tea. Bread is a legitimate menu item at Sitka & Spruce, The Walrus and the Carpenter, and Madison Park Conservatory, which sources its loaves from Columbia City Bakery and exquisite butter from Washington's Golden Glen Creamery.

À la Bonne Franquette, a modest meat-and-potatoes bistro which opened this August in Mount Baker, tacks on a $3 fee for bread service. Along with its compatriots stuck selling pâté in the midst of a recession, the restaurant is presumably keen to cut back on superfluous expenses and wasted belly space. The charge, then, is understandable. The accompanying portion of butter, however, is indefensible.

The dish of butter served with the thin slices of wheaty, open-crumb bread at À la Bonne Franquette is about as wide and deep as a stack of four poker chips, a hard-luck symbol that resonates in a dining room distinguished by stinginess. Dusted with sea salt (in far too small a dose to verify the menu's claim that it's cold-smoked with chardonnay oak chips), the butter's gone in a few swipes of the knife. In my two visits to the restaurant, it was never replenished.

Yet much like fairgoers who trade $1 for a gander at the world's biggest pig, restaurant diners know they're often on the receiving end of a swindle. They're accustomed to outrageous markups on steamed edamame and blueberry-pancake stacks. If cost was their only consideration, they would have stayed home and baked chicken thighs. But they're after an experience, so they try not to mentally calculate food costs when presented with an $18 bill for a plate of spaghetti and meatballs. It's a pact nearly as old as eating houses: Diners agree to pay listed menu prices, and in return restaurateurs camouflage the instances when they're being cheated. Another glass of wine, perhaps?

The problem is À la Bonne Franquette isn't holding up its end of the bargain. Its miserly habits are annoyingly apparent in the chintzy serving of butter, audaciously overpriced starters, and cheap-tasting proteins that anchor entrée plates. And the mistakes aren't redeemed by smart cooking: There's a disappointingly industrial sameness to the dishes. À la Bonne Franquette has a knack for making its customers feel like chumps.

À la Bonne Franquette belongs to Lyon-born Pascale Brochier and her husband, chef Hamed Elnazir, a native of Sudan. Elnazir studied at the French Culinary Institute in New York, and announced plans to yoke classical technique with Arabic influences at À la Bonne Franquette.

"Simplicity and authenticity are the words that best define Chef Hamed's background and cooking style," the restaurant's Facebook page explains. There's nothing overtly African on the menu, but a server reports Elnazir keeps ginger and cardamom near the front of his spice rack.

If Elnazir applied his Silk Road seasonings to sponges and rocks, it would probably still be difficult to score a table at À la Bonne Franquette, located in a neighborhood that's hard up for serious dining options. It's not uncommon to encounter a wait for one of the restaurant's 45 seats on a weeknight (and since there's no formal bar at which to wait, reservations are doubly recommended). The dining room, which has the freshly assembled appearance of a subdivision sales office, is pleasant, but tends to become very noisy when every table is taken. The restaurant's most desirable seats abut a row of pristine picture windows overlooking downtown. The view is magnificent.

On paper, À la Bonne Franquette sounds terrific. I'm all for inventive culinary collages, family-run businesses, and restaurants setting up shop in neighborhoods that aren't already overrun with sophisticated eateries. But my innate goodwill began to erode with the arrival of a teacup half-filled with toasted nuts, one of three appetizers on À la Bonne Franquette's short menu, not counting cheese—which rightly belongs under the dessert heading—and the butter-challenged bread plate. I'm guessing my cup held about a dozen almonds, cashews, and other nuts, scattered with fried shallots and a smattering of minced green herbs. The nuts tasted fresh, but not discernibly different from what a bartender might produce when asked for something insubstantial and salty to accompany a pint. For its smidgen of snack mix, À la Bonne Franquette charges $4. The same price buys a helping of olives, although I didn't chance it after the nuts. The final starter is a block of peppery pork pâté, smooth and rich against a sour fruit chutney. The chutney is made in-house, but the pâté isn't.

A gracious server told my table that the restaurant is trying to do better by its vegetarian guests. Currently, À la Bonne Franquette's meatless selection consists of a portobello plate, but the produce delivery hadn't included any mushrooms the day my guest tried to order it. Instead, he was offered an assemblage of sides: For $14, he was served a pile of slender green beans, cooked stiff and unseasoned save for salt; a limp ratatouille that was needlessly watery; and a scoop of gummy rice pilaf.

The salad section is a better target for vegetarian appetites. A lightly dressed house salad studded with cherry tomatoes and graced with stamp-sized shavings of Parmesan cheese is lively and bright. And while the portioning is meager, the tartines (a French version of crostini) surrounding a bloom of green salad pair beautifully with a glass of Lalande-de-Pomerol. Spackled with goat cheese and topped with translucent ruffles of zucchini, the toasty tartines are passable-plus. Goat cheese reappears, to lesser effect, on an upright tartan of cheese interlaid with very cold roasted beets.

There's a specials chalkboard prominently displayed near À la Bonne Franquette's front door, but there weren't any off-menu entrées available on either of my visits. Saddled with the regular menu, diners have a choice of a chewy, molasses-hued lamb stew, garnished with nuggets of nearly raw carrots; a tough rib-eye steak, with the mealy mouthfeel of cheap meat, served with a square of floury potato gratin; chicken sauced with white wine; and a disconcertingly flavorless grilled salmon.

Desserts are decent: A slightly sloshy crème brûlée is sufficiently traditional to satisfy any pent-up cravings harbored by home bakers without blowtorches in their arsenals. A chocolate pot de crème is thick and sweet.

Opening a restaurant, no matter how warmly it's received, is expensive. I can certainly appreciate the temptation to recoup money spent on renovations and kitchen equipment by pumping up prices by a few dollars. But by slapping double-digit prices on its entrées and cavalierly charging its customers for bread, olives, and nuts, À la Bonne Franquette has purchased expectations it isn't yet ready to fulfill.

Price guide

Pâté $8

Tartines $8

Beet salad $9

Steak $25

Salmon $23

Pot de crème $9

hraskin@seattleweekly.com

 
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