As much as I adore cute little French cafés, it seems like a counterintuitive moment to open one in Santa Fe.
With nearly a year under its belt, the Swiss Bakery Pastries & Bistro routinely packs its Guadalupe Street locale for weekend brunch. Mainstays like Clafoutis and La Fonda's French Bakery aren't going anywhere; indeed, two of those three made it into SFR's picks for Santa Fe's top 30 restaurants in our 2012 Restaurant Guide, released last week.
Also, it just got really cold, and winter isn't exactly the time of year you're most likely to spend idling away Sunday brunch in a sunny little café. Instead, you (or I) search out those dark, cozy bars (the Dragon Room at the Pink Adobe comes to mind) where you can hole up by an adobe fireplace after exhausting yourself on the slopes.
But Chez Mamou (217 E Palace Ave. 216-1845) the new little French joint on East Palace, doesn't seem to care much about the competition or the season. On a recent morning, the café—nestled into a space it partially shares with Noëlla Jewelry Couture—was full of bright sunlight. The décor is simple, light and tasteful, and classical music tinkled softly from hidden speakers.
Chez Mamou serves breakfast and lunch daily, and its menu, while not extensive, manages to include all the classics: quiche, crepes, French onion soup and plenty of pastries. A croissant sandwich ($7.50) comes stuffed with ham, eggs and cheese; eggs benedict can be ordered traditionally, with ham ($9.95), or with the more gourmet smoked salmon ($11.95).
All entrees come with an herb-roasted half-tomato and either potatoes provençal or a mixed green salad.
I opted for the huge, heavenly, dangerously rich croque madame ($8.75)—two fluffy slices of toasted white bread sandwiched around a generous pile of thinly sliced ham, slathered in creamy, tangy béchamel and topped with melted gruyere cheese and a delicately fried egg. The warm, herby freshness of the roasted tomato and earthy pile of perfectly seasoned potatoes provençal were perfect complements, and the meal was big enough to share. (I ate it all, of course; even my efforts to resist lapping up the pool of béchamel that spilled from the sides of the sandwich were futile.)
The croque monsieur ($7.75) is just as big, but without the egg.
An expansive pastry case also beckoned, so I bought a dozen assorted cookies, which came to around $12. The taco-shell-shaped tuiles were crowd-pleasers; delicate little palmiers were rich and buttery; and the jam-filled linzer cookies were perfectly crumbly and sweet.
Rows of croissants, brioches, pains au chocolat and other classic French pastries—along with steaming, freshly prepared espresso drinks—offer a lighter option for diners who fear that indulging in massive doses of butter, cheese and ham won't have a positive effect on their workday productivity. Organic sodas, juices and salads are also available for the health-conscious bruncher.
So, what is Chez Mamou? Another cute little French place, certainly—but not just another cute little French place. Its prices are accessible, the service friendly and accommodating, the menu simple, the cuisine excellent—all indicators that Chez Mamou will become a favorite for both leisurely weekend brunches and quick workday breakfasts and lunches.
And, since the café is only a little over a week old, downtown office types don't have to brave the lunchtime crowds that flood other veteran establishments—at least, not yet.