Favorite

I am in love with the Croque Madame.

That is not a person, but the Cadillac ... no, the Hummer of ham-and-cheese sandwiches, weighing in at nine worthy dollars.

La Baguette French Bistro chef/owner Patrick Garnier makes the classic Parisian bistro item by sautéing the swine strips to warm them, then grilling thick, buttered slices of French sandwich bread. He assembles the sandwich with Swiss cheese and French Dijon mustard, then melts more Gruyère cheese on top. That's all capped with a fried egg, then plated over a hot puddle of béchamel sauce next to potatoes persillade, salty thin French fries tossed in fresh garlic and parsley.

The Croque Madame is a sandwich you eat with a knife and fork. It's too big and wet to pick up, particularly after you pop the egg's yolk and let it ooze and bleed into the melted cheese and béchamel below. Like a Hollandaise-loaded Eggs Benedict plate, it's a heavy, comfort-food beauty that deals in velvety, fatty goodness, the undisputed perfect fusion of ham and Swiss flavors leading the way. Whatever wetness remains is best mopped up with the delightful, crisp fries.

This now being June, it's not absurd to call this my dish of the year thus far, the one to beat. Truly, I was stunned.

French facelift

Garnier and his wife Krystyna have done a fantastic job turning La Baguette French Bakery No. 4 into this sharp new bistro concept, with dinner hours and an expanded menu launched in early May. They spent six weeks redesigning the interior during off hours, painting the ceiling black, building out a new, liquor-stocked bar, and adding chic chandeliers and other decorative touches inspired by photos recently snapped by friends inside Paris eateries. They even added a nifty remote-controlled awning above the pastry counter that lowers over the day menu at night to create a more fine-dining feel, complemented by tablecloths and candles.

La Baguette's back story is convoluted, but the Garniers bought this location four years ago from founder Earl Turnipseed's ex-wife, Christine. The Turnipseeds also sold the downtown and Old Colorado City locations, and Earl renamed his Kelly Johnson Boulevard location La Tartine recently. Though separately owned now, all locations get their breads and some pastries from the OCC bakery, and the locally famous French onion soup recipe and a handful of other items are also shared.

What also sets the Garniers' operation aside are European touches that extend beyond French to Spanish, Italian and Eastern European cuisine. He's a French saucier by trade with an extensive culinary background, and she's Polish with kitchen skills that yield a white borscht on Thursdays.

Krystyna doesn't make the yummy mushroom-and-cabbage-stuffed pierogies ($6.75) as they're too labor-intensive, but a local Russian man does. Patrick finishes them with butter-braised paprika onions and plates them with a balsamic glaze and a Provençal spring mix salad with walnuts and grapeseed oil.

For other starters, the escargots (six for $7.95) see a lovely butter with garlic, shallot and parsley. The Tips Au Trois Poivres ($7.75), beef tenderloin tips trimmed from the Steak Diane entrée and marinated overnight in mustard and peppercorns, get a bath of heavy cream sauce and housemade demi-glace deglazed with cognac. It's even better than it sounds; when the tender hunks of the protein are gone, you're left with a super-flavorful puddle for your accompanying baguette.

True value

We bypassed the French onion soup since we know it's good, and opted instead for the Barcelona-style gazpacho ($6.50). Patrick's is properly spartan with cucumbers, peppers, celery and onions filling out a chunky tomato juice amped with cilantro, garlic and lemon juice. Our spinach walnut salad ($9.95) could have used more of its walnut-oil vinaigrette, but the bacon and candied walnuts were high points.

The bistro's Caprese rendition ($9.75) is generous on the mozzarella and tomato, unique with added romaine lettuce and delicious house-marinated red bell peppers, and only needed more basil. The Riesling, Swiss, Brie and Fontina Fondue Alsaçienne ($12.50) delivers a runnier body than fondue you're used to, but a nice flavor for the dips.

For dessert options (half made in-house), a great Serranos cappuccino ($3.25) pairs well with the orange crème brûlée ($4.50) and wonderful Crème Caramel ($4.00); the double espresso chocolate mousse ($4.25) is good, but the texture is a touch grainy and loose.

Minor flaws aside, this spiffed new Baguette is achieving everything Patrick says he's aiming for with dinner service: "a great meal at a medium-range price in a relaxed casual environment."

As the Madame will attest, this reborn bistro is dressed to seduce.

matthew@csindy.com

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