They were long and bleak, the months between March 2003 and January of this year—for local gourmands, anyway.
Sure, one could pipe recorded accordion music through the place or dress waiters up in striped shirts and berets, but local restaurateurs could only dream of recreating the feel of an authentic French place. Then came the day when socialism thundered to the rescue. Not here, but in Paris, Lyon, Marseilles and...that's all I can name, really.
On January 1, 2008, France joined Dallas in banning cigarettes at dining establishments. The new regulations ended, perhaps forever, the French custom of puffing away before, after and even during meals. Granted, tobacco complements some of the heartier country-style dishes—such as coq au vin or beef bourguignon—though not between bites. But clearing the haze over there evens the playing field. French restaurants within the city limits can prop umbrellas over their tables, uncork a few bottles of wine, chalk the word "boeuf" under their list of specials and pretend, once again, to share the atmosphere of a Parisian cafe.
Pumpkin curry soup (cup) $3.49
Zucchini bucherolle soup (cup) $3.49
Quiche Lorraine $4.39
Crepe Bretonne $2.99
Galette complete $7.99
Special poulet $14.99
Beef Bourguignon $16.99
Cheese plate $6.99
French apple cider (non-alcoholic) $11.99
Providing, of course, they have a liquor permit in hand.
At first glance, Normandie Alliance doesn't seem French. It's BYOB—an anathema in Europe and something they failed to mention when I first called to reserve a table, sticking us with a fine, crisp but decidedly non-alcoholic sparkling cider...although our server did suggest a nearby 7-Eleven for the real stuff. The room is spare, cold and uninviting, reminders of the previous tenants whitewashed into something akin to a cafeteria. Add a buffet line and toss the row of bright sidewalk umbrellas (lined up indoors) and this could easily be transformed into Luby's. Even their version of beef bourguignon leaves terroir in doubt. The classic French goulash earned worldwide acclaim for its rich, wine-soaked broth studded with root vegetables and cured bacon, as well as for the densely flavored, slow-cooked hunks of meat. Normandie Alliance turns out a rather less substantial version: stringy beef in a thin puddle of drippings, discolored by runoff fat. Perhaps I'm treading on a family recipe here, but soggy carrots in place of crisp pearl onions? No whiff of smoky bacon? Only the vaguest hint of tannic bite? This is more like a pot roast than the proud bourguignon.
Definitely worthy of Luby's.
Only the server's accent distracts you from weathered strip-mall ambience. Yeah, they'll speak to you in French—unless all you know is something along the lines of "ménage au trois" (which I blame not on my disinterest in languages at the time, but on an obviously troubled sixth-grade teacher). The room always interferes, however, telling of...I'm not sure what, really. It resembles Norman, Oklahoma, more than the old Norman region along the channel coast, so I opted for patio seating every visit.
Indeed, most guests file out to the deck, where entertainment includes three blank TV screens, the fountain in an artificial pond and whatever random bits of noise waft over from a neighboring apartment complex. If you're lucky, a few police cars will congregate in the parking lot, allowing for some "wonder what that's all about?" conversation.
Lacking objects of interest or cozy nooks, the kitchen must step up, turning food into the focal point. Their "special poulet" features nicely browned pieces of white meat, surprisingly tender and seasoned with rosemary yet somehow still as dull as supermarket chicken. These ride over coarsely chopped ratatouille and gratin Dauphinois—a rather sluggish combination, the latter a well-executed lump of creamy potato contributing bulk, but little else. Pumpkin curry soup falls prey to seasoning so well balanced yet so distinct the main ingredient shies away. And a decent mix of greens ranging from sweet and grassy to somewhat bitter is washed out by dressing tart enough to also shred whatever OB you brought along.
Quiche Lorraine, once the Yuppie dish of choice, came across well in terms of essential character, the meat, egg and cream mixture forming subtle warmth. On the other hand, we're accustomed on this side of the pond to thick, fluffy, inviting pies, and this has the look and feel of a thin crust pizza, without the excitement of pepperoni.
So ignore chef Gilles Perrette's few entrée items. It may be best to skip the soup and salad bit, too—apart from his zucchini and bucherolle concoction. Even though the presence of vegetable almost fades out completely, a wealthy, meaty, musty goat cheese base turns this into something not remarkable, but at least intriguing. The soup paints your lips like clotted cream, clings to the roof of your mouth then melts on the tongue, leaving a light, thin aftertaste. In wine terms it's got legs and a clean finish.
Instead, go for the crepes.
As Cal Naughton Jr. said, Normandie Alliance produces examples "just like pancakes, maybe better"—emphasis in this case on better. Galettes of buckwheat, a savory Norman-Burgundian favorite, begin with a deep brown crepe bubbled to a pumice texture without burning through, unleashing a robust taint (and in French cuisine, mind you, sour spoiled flavors are good things) similar to the charred and fermented grains that make up dark beers. This compensates for more subtle fillings, largely potato, egg and mildly cured ham in the restaurant's galette complete. Crepe Bretonne is merely one beautifully floppy, thin pancake dusted with sugar. Nothing more to it, but allowing crystals to singe delicately in butter infuses flavors of caramel and cream. Loaded types include almonds and honey, roasted apples, banana with chocolate and, of course, Nutella.
As an acquaintance of mine points out, "you could wrap up Nutella and bananas in a green rubber bathmat and it would taste pretty damn good"—which seems to dismiss the crepe-making art as a mere choice of color splattered with commercial hazelnut spread. The type of bathmat (rubber, shag carpet) doesn't seem to matter; bathing is not commonly associated with France, anyway.
Believe me, though: It requires more than a swing through Target to coax a stretchy, intricate consistency from soup-like batter.
Still, authenticity is difficult to accomplish, even with swirling palls of tobacco smoke distant memories. No matter how much you want to crawl into a crepe and eat your way out from the inside, there's always the stale suburban shopping center setting, yanking you back to reality. Simply put, there's more personality in a CD of Michael Dukakis' greatest speeches or Brent Musburger's voice—a kind of life-sucking vacuum I can't seem to put into words other than life-sucking vacuum.
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At least they have a sense of humor about it. I stopped by early on a Wednesday evening to find the place set up for a small event but otherwise empty. My "have room for one?" drew a genuine chuckle.
So go, order crepes, and hope 7-Eleven has a selection of wine versatile enough for both sweet and savory crepes and the surprisingly nice cheese plate—gruyere, a rather simplistic crumbled blue, beautifully gooey bucherolle with its meaty flavor and slices of aromatic comte. Americans sometimes confuse the latter with gruyere and gruyere with Emmental. Make certain, therefore, to explain all this to the clerk when asking for a recommendation.
Then recall that decent wine flows readily in freedom-loving France.
3920 Rosemeade Parkway, 972-306-2400. Open daily 5:30-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.-3 p.m., and Sunday 11 a.m.-3 p.m. $$