French Connection: Paris 66
6018 Centre Ave., East Side, East Liberty
Everyday French Cuisine; Lunch: Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Thurs.-Sat., 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday Brunch: 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; Lunch: Galettes (savory crêpes): $6.50-$8.50; Crêpes (sweet crêpes): $4-$6.50; Quiche and Pissaladière: $7.50-$8; Dinner: Galettes (savory crêpes): $8.50-$10.50 (add an egg, $1; add ham or cheese $1.50); Crêpes (sweet crêpes): $5-$7.50 (add ice cream, $2); Salads $12.50-$15; Entrees: $16-$22; House Quiche: $9; Soups: Cup, $3.50; Bowl, $6; Desserts: Everyday, $5.50-$6.50; Specials, $8.50; BYOB. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Nonsmoking. No reservations.
Pittsburghers like to feast on Primanti’s, pierogies and pizza, so what was I to make of lines snaking around the block to get into Paris 66, a new little French bistro on the city’s East Side?
At 7:30 p.m. on a recent weeknight, we found the place jammed. Tara, a gregarious stand-in for and best friend of co-owner Lori Rongier, greeted us with an arched eyebrow, informing us, almost coquettishly, that our wait would exceed an hour or more. No complaining in this crowd. We obediently accepted our beepers and slipped back into line.
The simple juxtaposition of two internationally loved icons, bohemian Paris and the "Mother Road" Route 66, conjures up images of crowded Left Bank cafes merged with American optimism and Kerouac’s spirit of open-road adventure.
Between both worlds, anything seems possible. But Paris 66’s attraction is more than just nostalgia or an inadvertent stroke of brilliant marketing. This soaring French crêperie – intimate, noisy and throbbing with energy – boasts everyday French cuisine, as well as extraordinary sights and smells, such as cake stands on the counter that display piping-hot quiches and house pissaladière (French pizza) on top of a glass dessert case harboring mind-boggling pastries.
Owners Frederic (Fred) and Lori Rongier generally speak French and so does anyone else who can. Almost-instant regulars have staked out perches, favorite seats and times of day within a "no-reservation" environment that keeps everything democratic. I love the traditional French street music, the respiratory nature of the concertina’s bellows, Edith Piaf occasionally breaking through with a soulful ballad.
Chef Cesar Dubs, a certified French crêpier, calls out "Bonjour" to everyone who walks through the door. Any wonder that from day one we frequently found it tough to score a table.
"It looks like Paris," says Fred with a gleam, as if he himself is surprised that the Martha Stewart shiraz, jonquil and soft ebony "French bulldog black" colors work so well together. An antique breakfront and a terrific old clock set to official Paris time restore some of the history that remodeling removed. "Fred had this vision," says Lori. "He knew exactly what he wanted. After I couldn’t talk him out of it anymore, I put my trust in him and followed his tenacity."
As the French say, Mr. Rongier is "bien dans sa peau," meaning self-assured and focused, hardworking, eager and willing to please. It shows. He loves it all, from the crowds to the everyday things that happen – a boy on his bicycle studying French who stops in to gaze at the pastries.
Rongier is everywhere: behind the counter, kibitzing with diners, helping servers, just generally making sure things are right. He and his wife plan to keep the kitchen as authentic as possible, starting with chef Dubs, whom I’ve witnessed in the heat of battle smiling and kidding with customers, eyes seemingly in the back of his head. Rongier and Dubs met in Pittsburgh under the most serendipitous of circumstances, by the way, to discover they had been trained as master crêpe makers by the same crêpier in Brittany, France.
The glory is in the details at the dreamy little cafe, where the simplicity of the food and the dining room almost conceals the level of care and luxury that go into everyday preparations. A cheery, sensible menu abounds in small pleasures supported by big flavors, offering a sensuous cuisine as elemental as it is complete. A compartmentalized broadsheet invites customers to pick and choose everything from quiche and crêpes to dinner salads with combinations that are irresistible.
Soup is a French habit. It’s a good place to start with such selections as potato leek, zucchini with a devilish kick and French onion.
I particularly like a musky mushroom soup, fresh and not too thick or heavy, and a little nutty. "Just white button mushrooms," said our server when we asked about species combinations. "It’s the way he cooks the mushrooms…. I haven’t figured it out yet, so I just keep watching." So does everyone. Dubs never reveals what soup he’s going to make each day, "So we all stand around waiting to see what it will be!" reveals Lori.
Quiche and savory buckwheat crêpes (les galettes de sarrasin) are hearty and translate well at lunch or dinner. I had a delicious quiche lorraine with ham and cheese, and a vegetarian spinach-and-goat-cheese quiche, though I must say it’s the crust that does me in every time.
As for the buckwheat crêpes, Fred Rongier stops in every morning to put together his "secret" buckwheat batter: dense and "very, very healthy," he says of this family recipe that goes back to his great-grandfather Gabriel, who had a bistro in Paris circa 1890.
Fred scouted around for six months to find the perfect buckwheat with just the right color and texture, with a desire to have a local, organic product. His quest ended at Frankferd Farms, near Saxonburg, in Butler County. The crêpes are earthy yet divinely epicurean. Even simple side salads have chemistry. Look for fluffy mixed greens that resemble a ruffled hat in a Renoir painting; adding to the mix, tossed in a gentle vinaigrette, are a few sun-dried tomatoes.
I’ve found myself stopping to watch Dubs ladle batter onto round griddles, dispersing it until it’s impossibly thin, almost not there. Then, at just the right moment, he folds each corner into a square using a spatula as if ironing linen or creating origami. Next come the fresh savory or sweet fillings, and the finished crêpe is slipped onto a square white plate for service. Experience "La Montparnasse" with tomato, mozzarella and basil; "La Champs Elysées" with creamed leeks and smoked salmon, or the simple "La St. Germain," the ham-and-swiss crêpe that won Lori’s heart.
After spending 10 years in Paris, the Rongiers and their four children now live in Highland Park. Lori teaches linguistics at Carnegie Mellon University; Fred sells BMWs, but this French bistro idea has been spinning around in his right brain for a long time. For years, Lori kept a "crêperie file" a mile thick, and Fred had "Paris 66" enscribed on his license plate long before he began making serious plans for the restaurant. "I would tell people way back that it was my dream to open a French crêperie," she says.
Our food came in good time, evidence that Paris 66 is not coasting on image or sheer fancy. Once you have been exposed to Paris 66, you realize that the days of extravagant French sauces inspissated with lots of cream and butter are, culinary speaking, of another era.
"Some of the best food is simple," says Lori, remembering her own years in Paris. As such, salads are plucky and light-to-taste, bordering on large, which I assume is right for the Pittsburgh crowd. I love the Paris-Brest dinner salad with scallops, shrimp, mussels and pesto; Paris-Nice with tuna, potatoes, green beans, olives, corn and anchovies; and Paris St. Tropez with homemade pesto, chickpeas, olives, hearts of palm, pine nuts and feta. All are offered at reasonable prices that underscore the house’s welcoming ways.
Meanwhile, it would take me a long time to tire of crêpes or quiches, but I did try some of the more recently added entrees to please readers. French lasagne, "Lasagne Bretonne," made with buckwheat galette substituting for Italian lasagna noodle, comes in an individual casserole filled with ground filet and tomatoes, and is topped with béchamel sauce. It’s the epitome of comfort food.
I’ve heard people raving about the homemade pâté, a French shepherd’s pie with tomato coulis, classic beef bourguignon and duck confit with prunes in a light crêpe wrap.
If the dessert case is full and neatly arranged for customer inspection when you arrive, you’re probably ahead of the evening rush. I’ve had profiteroles fit for royalty. Ditto for chocolate mousse, a sublime raspberry yogurt, signature fruit tarts and that sacrilegious coconut pie I keep talking about. A suggestion: How about a dessert medley so I don’t have to make these choices?
Finally, I leave you with Bugs Bunny paraphrasing Oscar Wilde: "Paris is where good Americans get to go when they die…." But, here, you can find it right around an East Liberty corner.
Each month, Deborah McDonald jump-starts appetites with lively restaurant reviews that scrutinize who’s cooking what and where. She works anonymously, visiting each restaurant at least twice before writing her column.
Do you know of a restaurant you’d like to have reviewed? E-mail Deborah.