There might be no more sincere or economical lunchtime rendezvous in the CBD than Le Petit Paris, a cafe buried between Dunkin' Donuts and Orient Express that's barely noticeable except for a sidewalk blackboard advertising the day's plate-lunch specials. Inside the cafe, a tiny space with tiny tables to match, the specials -- lentil salad, Cornish hen, beef a la bourguignonne -- reappear in tidy cursive handwriting on a pane of white tile bordered with red and black visages that appear to mimic Paris couture sometime around the 1960s. This tile hangs directly above a pastry case filled with stuffed croissants and individual quiches, a position that, despite the limited selection of both plate lunches and pastries, can frustrate decision making.
On most days the cafe's proprietor, Angele Nguyen, is partial to one of the specials, all priced at less than $6. Ask her what she recommends and she'll answer by peering into a deep pot on the stove, or by cracking open the door to a cold oven and taking stock of various meats and vegetables arranged as if for dinner party presentation in roasting pans and plastic containers. "Chicken curry," she might decide, soon delivering a plate of rice, potatoes and bone-in chicken deeply flavored with a yellow, clove-scented curry sauce that deposits a pleasant sting to the back of the tongue. Or, as she did for me on another day, she might choose the roasted turkey, offering up an extremely juicy turkey breast rendered more savory yet by its not-quite-crisp skin and a few spoonfuls of herbaceous pan juices.
I haven't figured out the system behind Ms. Angele's side dish assignments, but I like it. As with certain other lunch specials, a small Caesar salad dusted with Parmesan cheese accompanied the chicken curry, providing cool comfort; the kitchen being even less spacious than the dining room, her assistant assembled the salad on one of the stovetop's empty burners, pouring the creamy dressing from a plastic drink pitcher. A bevy of picture-perfect, al dente vegetables came with the turkey breast: thin green beans, grassy-colored broccoli, roasted potatoes, sliced carrots. It was like Thanksgiving condensed.
If Ms. Angele has a signature lunch, it's either the roasted, rosy-fleshed chicken, its skin darkened the color of charcoal with dried herbs, or it's the garlicky sliced pork loin whose rich flavor calls into question pork's status as a white meat. But if Ms. Angele's regular customers had to name the one item from her kitchen they couldn't live without, I believe they would pick the golden potatoes that grace nearly every entree plate -- peeled cylinders of starch colored a slightly darker golden around their chewy edges. These potatoes tend to dry out as the day wears on, and the microwave used to re-heat everything tends to zap the full effect of any perfectly roasted object. Still, stalking Common Street for parking isn't so painful when the promise of these potatoes is just a baguette's toss away.
Le Petit Paris doesn't look like Paris, but it evokes Paris. There's Robert Doisneau's famous black-and-white photograph of a Parisian kiss frozen in time, and there's a photograph of the proprietor herself before one of Paris' grand arches. Mirrors brushed with black sketchings of an urban park -- the Tuileries, perhaps -- cover an entire wall, and customers may choose from a stack of dented metal trays meant for carrying cafe au laits from cash register to table. My own favorite tray is round and red with a relief of the Eiffel Tower. Ms. Angele, whose dark, smiling eyes soften an otherwise resolute expression, was born in France to a French father and a Vietnamese mother. She and her Vietnamese husband ran a coffee shop and patisserie in Saigon prior to the Vietnam War.
Her food is markedly European, both in its modest portions and its simple but opulent flavors. Meat-and-potatoes dishes swimming with buttery pan juices taste good for you. Thick, salty split pea soup with ham is never more comforting than when it's served by a smiling French woman wearing an apron. And basic quiches, seemingly aromatic with nutmeg, make lovely dinners when re-heated at home and paired with a salad. The potato and onion quiche Maison is especially fluffy, toppling over at the suggestion of a fork. Stuffed croissants are fine but hardly as life-affirming as the home-cooked meals.
If Le Petit Paris were actually in Paris, carafes of food-friendly wine would no doubt go for a pittance; customers would return to their offices with purple-stained teeth and no shame. Ah well, fresh-squeezed lemonade poured from a pink pitcher into Styrofoam cups is a delicious stand-in.
While this is not a full-service restaurant -- customers order and pay at the register -- Ms. Angele and her assistants are as courteous as a tuxedoed waitstaff working for tips. They speak in whispers, creating a peaceful atmosphere amid the CBD bustle; they dress with as much class as their professional clientele; and they manage to serve microwave-heated food that tastes elegant even when eaten with disposable silverware from disposable plates. The entire Le Petit Paris experience is a reminder that a cheap lunch on the fly doesn't have to be a forgettable one.