Ghini's French Caffé Is The Early-Morning Talk Of The Town.
By Rebecca Cook
GHINI'S FRENCH CAFFÉ is a small marvel. Surreptitiously tucked away in a small shopping center at the corner of Prince and Campbell, the tiny eatery survives primarily by word of mouth. But from the looks of things, folks are talking a blue streak about the place.
Open for breakfast and lunch only, Ghini's is an A-student in the "less is more" school. Owner Coralie Satta-Williams has embraced not so much the virtuosity of haute cuisine as the gentle ambiance of the French countryside, with provincial cooking that features an abundance of fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs. It's like eating in your grandmother's kitchen: cozy, uncomplicated and deeply satisfying.
This singular blend of creativity and comfort elevates Ghini's to top form; and it doesn't hurt that the café shares space with La Baguette, a popular bakery owned and operated by Satta-Williams' parents. The endless supply of crunchy loaves and feather-light croissants is essential to any respectable French eatery, and Ghini's has the market cornered.
Business gets underway early most days, beginning at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 7 a.m. on Sunday. During the summer months, these early morning hours are ideal for sitting at an umbrella-capped table on Ghini's patio. There's additional seating inside, which isn't a bad second choice given the pervasive aroma of fresh baked bread wafting through the morning air.
Breakfast here is a pure delight. Beginning with orange juice (always fresh-squeezed) and proceeding into the first heady cup of dark roasted coffee, Ghini's regales the diner with a series of bright and lively accents. You can have your standard bacon and eggs, but this hardly constitutes typical Ghini's fare. The motif is decidedly French: café au lait with croissants or tartines (a split French baguette, toasted and served with sweet cream butter and an assortment of jams); French toast with fresh strawberry purée; and a variety of continental-style omelets.
What better way to get initiated into Ghini's day-breaking offerings than by ordering the chef's signature dish, eggs provençal ($6.50)? Two eggs cooked to order (over easy, thank you) are served with two broiled halves of fresh tomato seasoned with garlic, fresh thyme and crumbled bread crumbs. The juices from the tomato and herbs gloriously mingle with the eggs and crisply amber hash browns, making every bite buoyant with flavor. Toasted baguette slices make the perfect accompaniment.
An enormous cup of steaming café au lait ($2.25) is heavenly in washing it all down, especially when sweetened ever so lightly. The omelets vied admirably for serious consideration, with intriguing ingredients. The Latin poor man (with potato, onion and garlic), the Provençale (garlic, onion, tomato and fresh thyme), the Marseillaise (anchovies, tomato and garlic) and the Omelette du soleil (cheddar, Swiss and muenster cheese, fresh garlic and herbs provençale) constitute just a few of the options. At long last, we succumbed to grilled chicken breast and eggs, served in a special garlic sauce ($5.65).
It was a command performance. The boneless, skinless breast couldn't have been more moist and tender, and the rich tomato-based garlic sauce, seasoned with a pinch of thyme, provided a savory swirl well-suited to a steaming portion of hash browns. Somehow, eggs with chicken has never been a natural pairing in my kitchen; but in Ghini's capable hands this was a splendid morning repast.
Lunch can easily become the main meal of the day at Ghini's, where selections not only include an impressive listing of salads and sandwiches, but also some pasta, egg and pâté platters.
Soups are also part and parcel of the midday meal, and Ghini's does an excellent job blending homemade sensibility with a deft, Franco flourish. The French onion soup ($4.75) is served in a small crock, capped with a wedge of bread and a layer of gruyere cheese broiled until bubbly and golden. A soup du jour is also featured--on the day we visited, a lovely minted tomato bisque (cup $2.50; bowl $3.50). Studded with bits of tomato, onion and mint leaves, even the soaring temperatures outside couldn't dampen our enthusiasm for this light soup. The hunk of crusty French bread that came with it guaranteed that every last drop would be soaked up and enjoyed.
A sandwich special of rare, shaved roast beef, fresh basil and brie served on a ciabatta roll with tomato, lettuce and onion (also served with a medium drink, cup of soup and a tomato-chile salad, for $6.95) lured us away from the highly recommended sesame-seared ahi salad.
Ciabatta is slightly thin--about the thickness of a good focaccia bread--and brown and crusty on top. It's served as a split wedge rather than in rectangular slices, and the contents tend to spill out with each bite. It was worth the messy effort of reassembling the sandwich, however, as the combination of ingredients was superb: full-flavored brie, ripe and juicy tomatoes, a piquant infusion of shredded basil, and beef so lean and tender it melted in your mouth. No regrets here.
A pasta dish with prosciutto and parmesan ($7.95) proved equally scrumptious, served as a large platter of cavatelli shells tossed with a creamy sauce and slices of white mushroom known as champignons de Paris. The arranged marriage of smoky ham and sharp cheese was cause for celebration indeed, and the mushrooms and--at our waiter's suggestion--an addition of chopped tomatoes rounded out the flavors beautifully.
In fact, our waiter guided us at every turn. He was eloquent in his praise of many dishes, and provided insight and information as needed. "We're her best advertisement, because she feeds us everything on the menu," he said in reference to his employer. It is increasingly rare to find waiters with this kind of specialized knowledge as well as enthusiasm, and it's greatly appreciated. Kudos not only to the young man himself, but also to Satta-Williams, for investing in both a well-informed and well-trained staff. Dessert options are limited, but with a bakery next door this poses no dilemma. A cappuccino flan ($1.75) was densely flavored with dark-brewed coffee and cream, and a hot-buttered apple rum shortcake ($3.75) was acceptable, though nowhere near the standard set by the rest of the meal.
Although the portion was enormous, the cake was curiously lacking in flavor, more closely resembling a sponge cake than a more common dense biscuit. The sliced apples were tender and lightly spiced with cinnamon, but hot butteriness never completely materialized.
Although open for only the first two meals of the day, Ghini's has recently started gourmet cuisine on the go, with dinners that can be picked up between 3 and 7 p.m. Dishes vary daily, and you may want to call ahead to see if the day's selections suit your fancy. Ghini's may be a fairly well-kept local secret, but the time has come to spread the news: Ghini's French Caffé is one-of-a-kind wonderful.
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