The most important thing to know about Upstairs at La Baguette is how to find it — through an unmarked wooden door to the left of La Baguette French Bakery's entrance. In the same manner that 15C earned appeal through its back-alley speakeasy feel, ULB's charm partly comes from this quasi-clandestine vibe.
The rest of the bar's considerable character stems from its higher-end yet affordable drink list and warm décor, arranged around a fireplace and five-seat bar. Spirits shelves are backlit by color-changing lights that turn the bricks of the former storage area (and bordello, historically) cool and warm neon hues.
You could come here just for drinks, especially since they're served with a complimentary La Baguette bread basket (texturally pleasing, gluten-free "garfava" flour bread is also available) and olive oil seasoned to a wine-friendly zestiness with red pepper flakes, garlic and an herb blend. But three elegantly simple, free spreads — one an Italian-style white bean and rosemary mash, the other two Kalamata olive tapenades — selected to match the European-inspired menu by Polish-born owner Toni Rog will tease you into thinking food.
For appetizers, which in sum could make a family-style meal, choose between a six-cheese plate ($12), cantaloupe and prosciutto plate ($9) and escargot ($10). The latter's butter could use more garlic and herbs, per classic French style, but the meat-melon-mix wins as a virtually bulletproof catering go-to. The predominantly French cheese spread, including Bleu d'Auvergne and Délice de Bourgogne, works well with the nice breads.
If visiting with a minimum of four, a full kilo (2.2 pounds) of enjoyable, traditional Swiss fondue ($36) easily feeds all, served with apples and additional bread. ULB binds French Emmentaler and Gruyère cheeses with Australian Sauvignon Blanc and Kirsch (white brandy) for their respective fruit undertones. In our case, Fontina was subbed for our Gruyère because the latter was out of stock. Also, our waitress confessed, a manager had to be called in to locate and execute the recipe — one of a few indications that servers could use more training.
Desserts ($1.50 to $4.55) are uniformly excellent, especially with an espresso drink. The chocolate mousse, crème caramel and flourless chocolate cake again cater with gusto to the gluten-free crowd. For the unrestricted, the potent lemon tart and creamy, fruity, multi-layer Schausse cake are highlights.
As for the vino, Rog says most of his list can't be found elsewhere in town; he aimed for exclusives over a two-year period of collecting prior to opening. Many vintages priced in the $6-to-$9 range date back to 2006 and 2007, showing more maturity and offering a decent deal.
The quality liquor menu also tops out at $9. Of particular interest is an absinthe selection, which gets a fancy pour treatment: You set a hookah-sized absinthe fountain to slowly drip ice-water over a sugar cube on a slotted absinthe spoon, into an ornate glass, until the ideal green color and sweet licorice-flavor is achieved. Beers include a couple lesser-seen Irish brews and Poland's pale, malty Okocim label.
Rog, who bought this La Baguette six years ago, can be seen drinking wine with customer-friends in between touching tables with a big smile. The staff, too, appears relaxed, dawdling behind the bar, even openly knitting (and at times missing refill/reorder opportunities).
To their credit, the casual behavior does set a slow-food-esque tone for a visit. Perhaps when ULB's semi-secret existence grows less so, that'll change. God forbid, it may even have a sign or phone number someday.
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