Café Grace brings casual French fare to the ‘burbs

Talk about a preview.

Café Grace is the third of three connected restaurant properties managed by the Bartolotta group in The Mayfair Collection on Wauwatosa’s far west side. It opened July 19, but the weekend prior saw two nights of preview dining that gave invited friends and family a chance to sample the kitchen’s handiwork.

It’s the dining equivalent of inviting theatergoers to the dress rehearsal of a brand-new play — with all its risks and rewards.

Joe Bartolotta was on hand, meeting and greeting the evening’s diners. He knows how to do the hospitality thing well.

Café Grace joins the previously opened Taqueria El Jefe and ABV Social, all of which share communal walls and the same kitchen. They anchor a corner of the upscale open-air shopping center located on West Burleigh Street and Interstate 41.

The three-restaurant combo is a partnership between the managing Bartolotta team and owner Phoenix Hospitality Group, a hotel developer located in Boerne, Texas, just outside of San Antonio. Café Grace is named after the daughter of Phoenix Group partner John Mangel.

James Beard award-winning chef Adam Siegel, executive chef for Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro, co-wrote the menu and that preview night helmed the kitchen. Café Grace’s goal is casual French dining, a market position supported by a continental menu, black-and-white wall coverings and flooring and Edith Piaf warbling on the sound system.

The restaurant seems to have hit its mark. The practice party vibe was electric, with diners tapping into Siegel’s largely impressive entrées and hors d’oeuvre, while the large wait staff negotiated the dining room’s difficult traffic patterns and attempted to master the electronic cash register system. All told, the hits far outweighed any misses during this dress rehearsal.

THE ENTRÉES

The menu offered small and large plates, as well as soups and salads. Entrées ranged in price, from $14 for a Le Café Burger, with Brie or Gruyere cheese and Belgian Mayonnaise, to the $75 Entrecote Pour Deux, a charred bone-in ribeye roast for two served with asparagus, cauliflower and mushrooms in a brown butter hollandaise sauce.

Our group of four opened with two appetizers. The Pissaladière ($10) was a crispy grilled flatbread topped with roasted tomatoes and red onions, Niçoise olive tapenade and a sliver of white anchovy — a unique ingredient with little overall impact on the dish.

The Pâté De Volaille ($8) arrived as a half-cup of chicken liver pâté topped with a layer of cherry preserves and served with far too few toasted baguette slices. (More arrived upon request.) The appetizers were fine for what they were, but elicited little enthusiasm from the table.

The entrées fared better and, in at least one case, much better. The influence of Siegel, who walked back and forth in the presentation kitchen overseeing his staff, was much more evident here.

It’s often tough to pull off excellent vegetarian dishes in a commercial setting, but Café Grace managed with its Panisse et Artichaut ($20). The chickpea cakes served with artichokes, haricots verts and mushrooms proved greater than the sum of its parts, effortlessly combining flavors and textures into dining perfection.

The two seafood dishes were equally pleasing, although a little less unique in their variety and presentation. The traditional Coquilles St. Jacques ($28) offered the same chickpea cake topped with three roasted sea scallops enlivened with chopped Swiss chard and golden raisins and served in a beef jus. The scallops were succulent and gained additional texture from the roasting, balancing nicely with the complementary flavors.

At the server’s suggestion, we ordered the Raie Genobloise ($24), a pan-seared skate with lemon-brown butter and accents of capers and chopped asparagus. Although skate can sometimes be stringy, this time it broke apart easily under fork pressure. It was plated astride a mound of olive oil mashed potatoes featuring a unique blend of other ingredients. We weren’t disappointed with the suggestion.

Among the entrées, the Canard Confit ($24) was the standout dish. The slowly cooked duck leg quarter was the best we’d ever tasted, beautifully complemented by fresh spinach, walnuts and cherry gastriques that brought out the best in the bird.

THE DESSERTS

Desserts followed and, once again, some worked better than others.

The profiteroles ($6) featured balls of the familiar choux pastry, but stuffed with vanilla ice cream instead of whipped cream and drizzled in melted chocolate. Nicely done and refreshing, they were pretty much what was expected.

Tarte Au Citroen ($7) offered a slice of lemon tart with a honey meringue and raspberry puree. The lemon’s tartness was muted to better balance with the flavors of the dish’s other components.

Much less successful was Marquise au Chocolate ($7) a partially frozen brick of mousse that appeared to have been dropped out of a tiny gelatin mold and topped with a few fresh raspberries and a dollop of sweetened Crème Fraiche. The tastes weren’t bad, but the components did not blend and the dessert proved a disappointment.

The winner in this category was the Gateau au Chocolate ($7), a warmed Valrhona chocolate cake filled with Crème Anglaise and served its own small baking dish. Rich and sweet, the cake made every bite a pleasure.

As we were leaving the restaurant, we spotted Joe Bartolotta sitting at the bar, enjoying his own Canard Confit.

Wonder if he followed up with the Gateau au Chocolate?

Café Grace is at 11200 W. Burleigh St. in The Mayfair Collection shopping mall. Call 414-837-6310 for reservations.