I've been hearing raves about La Baguette since it opened last year, in a strip mall across from West Towne Mall. Even if I hadn't heard a word, though, I'd be hungry to try it, for two reasons. First, the bakery cum cafe (open for breakfast, lunch and early dinner) specializes in sandwiches. And the sandwich, if it's done right, can be the perfect meal.
The other reason I was ready to race to La Baguette is that it's a French patisserie that specializes in, um, pastries, and for some reason, actual cakes that rise are an increasingly endangered species. Madison still doesn't have the bakeries it deserves. And dining out these days doesn't offer any sugar rush worth waiting for, just the inevitable, cloddish lineup of crème brûlées, panna cottas and flourless chocolate cakes. Cake wasn't meant to be flourless. And crème brûlée is an uninviting culinary tic too often crowned by that sinister, overly thick glaze, the one that could double as shrapnel.
Obviously I wasn't alone in my hunger for a dessert worth eating. La Baguette was jammed, midday, on a recent weekday. Most of the diners were wisely sitting with their backs to the big picture window, the one that looks out on the strip mall parking lot. Pretending, instead, that they were somewhere in Provence, or maybe Paris, they were facing the display cases filled with fruit tarts, the hopeful signs ("café," "Paris") hanging on the wall behind the counter, and the sight of Olivier and Carine Vigy - an actual French couple - working hard, Olivier rushing in with fresh-baked baguettes, Carine taking orders with an ineffable kind of French chic, steady enough to face down that charmless parking lot and any sad strip mall.
The food, for the most part, was good enough to defy the parking lot, too. La Baguette's sandwiches are pristine affairs. The ham and gruyere on a fresh-baked (for once it really is) baguette benefits from the crunch of cornichons and tastes like a salute to about 2,000 years' worth of Gallic culture, though a bit more sweet butter and maybe a dab of mustard would add flavor. Tender slices of chicken, lettuce, tomatoes and mayonnaise (but again, more mayo would help) on a just-as-freshly-baked ciabatta (maybe the only good ciabatta I've had recently) make for a clean, sedate chicken sandwich and, like all the sandwiches here, a recession/depression-worthy bargain at $5.75. The tuna salad on the ciabatta is just as good.
It's La Baguette's quiche that's the real lunch eye-opener, a version that single-handedly reclaims quiche from the culinary dustbin. The Vigys' quiches (I had the chevre and brought home two big slices of the mushroom) are delicate, thin crust, savory tarts - as light as a soufflé and the antidote to all those glutinous deep-dish quiches that gave the dish a bad name. They are simply perfect.
Lunch, of course, is really just an appetizer here, a chance to scan those long glass cases lined with pastries, and the hanging baskets filled with bread; everyone munching on those purist, ladylike sandwiches is deciding what they're going to bring home and gorge on. At least I was.
I brought home a lot, maybe too much. A few of the pastries were disappointments. La Baguette specializes in fruit tarts (the day I visited the choices included chocolate, nut caramel, cherry almond, pear, lemon and peach), but the pear tart was too dense. The pastry shell, which should have been more delicate and flaky, overpowered the fruit. And a big wedge of bread pudding was just heavy, leathery and dry. But a chocolate éclair made up for the missteps. Glazed with chocolate and fat with chocolate cream, the torpedo was as good as any rendition you'll find in Paris, maybe better. Also satisfying: the raisin brioche, a classic Napoleon and a palmier. Among the breads, my favorite was a very crusty, elegant, round olive bread ripe with olives. I bet the bacon and cheese bread is just as good - I won't know, though, until I go back. This being Wisconsin, the bacon and cheese bread had already sold out.