Even if you don't recognize Cane Á Sucre as being the French way of saying "cane sugar," and don't notice the sign outside and on the front of the menu that says "French bakery, café, gourmet sandwiches," chances are you'll still know you're in a French-style lunch spot. For one thing, most of the sandwiches start with "le," as in le milano, a combination of prosciutto ham, roasted tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and basil on olive baguette. And le habanero, thinly shaved slices of juicily roasted pork with Dijon mustard, caramelized onions, and peppered jack cheese slapped on top like Ernest Hemingway on a Havana barstool. Then there's the self-evident le club, and le marinero, defined by tuna salad, lettuce, tomatoes, and hard-boiled egg.
Even the sandwiches that don't start with "le" are obviously Francophile creations, like a parisien with ham, tomatoes, and "artisan" butter; paysan with pâté de campagne, cornichons, butter, and Dijon; and the always-alluring croque monsieur, a griddle-pressed ham and Swiss on brioche. Excepting le croque, all sandwiches come on baguettes that have been shipped from France in frozen state and baked periodically throughout the day. Of course the quality of baguette, import or not, still isn't what you'd find in an actual Parisien café, but it does make for fresh, crunchy sandwich bread. And the sandwiches are excellent, the fillings defined by clean, assertive flavors, their size that of generously stocked panini (meaning substantial enough to satisfy, though the French have never embraced America's giant sub concept); they go for nongiant prices of $3.95 to $6.50.
Soup of the day, potato leek, was also quite good, of proper thin consistency and smoothly pleasurable taste. La pasta salad wasn't of proper consistency -- too mushy, probably due to the use of aged balsamic vinegar. Many years ago, during my first week as chef at an upscale take-out shop in New York, I prepared a pasta salad that likewise contained balsamic vinegar. The owner, an Italian man who looked a little like Tony Soprano, approached me, put his arms around my shoulders, looked me in the eyes, and said in a quiet, serious manner: "Don't ever put vinegar with pasta again." I never did, and this salad serves to remind why my old boss was correct: The acid eats away at the pasta's texture, and the vinegary taste, while matching up well with the salad's roasted tomatoes, tiny cubes of fresh mozzarella, and chopped basil, didn't in any way enhance the noodles. A good olive oil would have been enough. Cane Á Sucre plays it safe with the other three salads: chef, caesar, and sort of an abbreviated niçoise of fresh tuna, tomatoes, and hard-boiled eggs with greens.
Desserts were hit-and-miss. Actually we sampled just two. The hit: crème brélée baked into a tart shell. The custard and caramelization were textbook-perfect, the crust retained its crispness, and I wondered why, with all of the brélée variations out there, nobody had thought of this before. Great idea, the type of addictive little sweet that could lead to a habit of stopping here just to pick some up (they're two dollars apiece).
The miss: a pretty, cylindrical, individual serving of tiramisu that was texturally grainy, slightly off in taste, and ice cold in the center. It had come from the freezer. Bad idea. Other visually tempting treats, all baked on site, include éclairs, mille-feuilles, apple tartlets, mini-mousse, cakes, and chocolate-dipped strawberries. Croissants, pain au chocolates, turnovers, Danish, and coffeecakes make this a suitable breakfast stopover as well. The machine needed to produce the most interesting cold beverage, homemade guarapo, hasn't yet arrived, but this will be a fitting drink, made as it is from fresh sugar-cane juice.
Cane Á Sucre is located on the cusp of the Design District. The sparse olive-green room has a counter and deli display cases behind which food is prepared, and eight stools; that's about it. Five small outdoor tables cluster under an awning off NE Second Avenue -- not the most picturesque setting, but the seats are somewhat sheltered from automobile traffic. Then again, take-out and delivery are available, so you might want to enjoy your lunch in the comfort of home or discomfort of office. Wherever: Cane Á Sucre is a sweet little lunch spot with praiseworthy sandwiches.
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