Bistro brings taste of France to Jersey City
Friday, January 17, 2003
By S&M Kilnisan
Journal restaurant reviewers
We needn’t remind you that Jersey City is not the South of France. Yet nonetheless, a distinctly Gallic state of mind unfolds nearly every day on the corner of Fourth and Brunswick at Madame Claude.
Despite its unexpected location, it’s hard not to wax rhapsodic about this traditional French bistro, which is as sweet and as sophisticated as a creme brulee or a tarte tatin. Yet to compare the atmosphere at Madame Claude to a classic French dessert is to do a disservice to this three-month-old eatery. Even though its picture postcard dining room seats 30 people max, Madame Claude is very much a full-service restaurant with lots of ambition. Granted the menu is limited, and the onus is on you to bring your own bottle of cheer. However, we’ll gladly accept such limitations, especially when they come in the form of hot buttery mussels or quiche Lorraine or coq au vin.
“You know everyone thought we were crazy when we told them we were opening a French bistro in Jersey City,” says Alice Troletto, one of the restaurant’s French-born owners. “They said no one is going to come there.”
There is a squat, brick-covered building, which from the outside looks very much like a Hudson County truck stop specializing in chili. But step inside and Hudson County industrial dissolves into a provincial French fantasy. Think of all those small-town restaurants immortalized in Peter Mayle bestsellers chronicling the colorful Provencal countryside. Madame Claude is part of that tradition.
Armed with enthusiasm and plenty of caffeinated energy, Torletto and her partner Martine Sorrentino, who have worked together at a number of Manhattan restaurants, transformed the small dining room into a homage to Provence, replete with its signature colors of yellow and red. No wonder the neighborhood kids are always poking their heads in the window to see “whassup.”
What’s up is classic French cuisine, minus the frills. Not haute cuisine nor nouvelle but the cuisine of grand mere (grandmother). Comfort food ala France. In keeping with the bistro tradition, the standard menu emphasizes lighter fare such as salads, quiches, sweet and savory crepes and French specialties like escargot or steamed mussels. Not to be forgotten are the sandwiches such as Le Croque Monsieur. (The French version of a Cubano, the traditional melted cheese and ham.) Prices are affordable enough to turn this charming, casual spot into a regular hangout. (Sandwiches, quiches and savory crepes range from $6.50 to $9.50.)
Some naysayers might think that a grilled cheese does not a meal make. Nor for that matter does quiche. But keep in mind that portions here are large. Quiches are served as individual pies and the savory crepes, prepared from a buckwheat flour batter, are surprisingly filling. Try the smoked salmon crepe with creme fraiche. Is this the French answer to lox and cream cheese?
To create a more full-bodied meal, one can order a variety of side dishes such as French fries, ratatouille (a bit unseasoned for our tastes) and an excellent gratin dauphinois, a potato casserole layered with cheese and creme fraiche. (Side dishes from $4 to $5.)
Desserts are made on the premises, and like those found in good French bistros, have a distinctly homemade quality. If you’re looking for a light, refined way to end the meal, try the chocolate crepes with a cappuccino.