First Look: Café Vendôme

New cafe brings French flavor to Sandy Springs

No value assignedOn the back wall of the new Café Vendôme in Sandy Springs, there’s a life-size photo of the café-lined arcade of the Place des Vosges in Paris. You can almost reach out and touch the history-laden stone columns, or place your very real French baguette into the lifelike woven basket of a bicycle leaning up against a Parisian café’s gates. And if you look just right, Café Vendôme’s tables, with their ornate iron bases, segue seamlessly into the faraway setting. It’s a clever touch, perfectly suited to the intentions of a café eager to capture the magic of the streets of Paris right here in Georgia. Café Vendôme may not get you all the way to France, but it certainly tries.

The café sits on the backside of the Belle Isle retail strip on Roswell Road, discreetly hidden from the busy street. Once you find your way inside, whether for coffee and pastries in the morning or a light lunch in the afternoon, you’re likely to hear bits of French being spoken by the owner and what seems like a steady stream of friends, including many French expats who have already found their way here.

The French term salon de thé isn’t well known in the states, but that’s basically what Café Vendôme is — a casual daytime spot serving coffee, tea, pastries, and light meals. As you walk in, the long pastry counter draws your attention, packed with colorful creations including several types of macaron, intricately layered desserts, fruit-topped tarts, and plentiful croissants. A large chalkboard lists the sandwiches, salads, and quiche available each day.

No value assignedThe feel, the music, the ovens, the pastry chef, the owner — they’re all French. Thankfully, the espresso machine is Italian, and the coffee is Counter Culture, making Café Vendôme a welcome spot in an area that has few options for quality java. I could take a swipe at both Café Vendôme and the French by saying that the often-confused counter service is très français, but I’ll cut both some slack and just say that the café’s relatively inexperienced staff is still learning, but eager to please.

The equally eager owner is Hamid Rouchdi, a telecom engineer by trade who decided two years ago that his calling was to bring Sandy Springs a French café. Clearly passionate about the prospect, Rouchdi traveled to France to recruit award-winning pastry chef Carolin Karl, whose pastries and baguettes are the highlights of Café Vendôme’s menu. You can watch Karl at work in his stark white kitchen/bakery through an expanse of glass behind the café’s counter, studiously shaping and cutting dough throughout the day.

The small menu of sandwiches, salads, and quiches (ranging from $6.50 to $9.95) does fine for sustenance, but, thus far, fails to capture much French charm. The “River” sandwich served on a cold baguette arrived with not nearly enough smoked salmon to warrant the name, and a barely-dressed and boring quinoa and green bean salad simply exacerbated the feeling that we were getting further away from France with each moment. A vegetable quiche with plentiful broccoli and potato inside a nicely-browned crust came to the rescue, snapping our table out of its temporary Francophile funk.

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Karl’s classic entremets (typically multi-layered and mousse-based desserts, here $6.90 each) go a step further, immediately taking your tastebuds on a decadent journey — there's the Caramel'ô with its layers of crunchy chocolate biscuit, dark chocolate mousse, and just-dense-enough caramel and the brightly-hued Exotique featuring a coconut biscuit base, vanilla mousse, and a topping of passion fruit gelée artfully accented by sugar-dusted raspberry and a slice of colorful passion fruit. And if you have any need at all for bread, order one of the slender baguettes ($2.75) to take home with you. The lightly yeasty loaves strike the perfect balance of crunch and chew that Parisian baguettes are known for.

During a recent rainy weekend breakfast with my daughter, a French rendition of Chuck Berry’s "No Particular Place to Go" played inside the café (Eddy Mitchell, peut-être?). We sat at our little table, looking over the faux Place des Vosges, leisurely enjoying our coffee and pastries. For a moment, it was Sunday morning at a sidewalk café in Paris, with, appropriately, no particular place to go.

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