With the almost religious awe in which we hold French food in this country, we have a hard time imagining a French restaurant without white tablecloths, painfully proper service and skyscraper bills. Like Catherine Deneuve in a sweatsuit, the idea of a French coffee shop just does not compute for us. We like our idols to stay simple and in context.
And yet the French do drink coffee, and they drink it in some fairly undistinguished surroundings. There is a perfect example in, of all places, Long Beach.
Chez Sylvie is the kind of place you might find in any working-class neighborhood in Nice. It's a simple room with only three or four tables. Sylvie Bartonotta, a petite Frenchwoman in a chef's jacket and stretch pants, manages the kitchen single-handed. There'll be one waiter or waitress out front, but I've seen so many different faces, I suspect they may be friends or family just helping out.
There's not much to the decor: a couple of travel posters, a chest of drawers stacked with French food products and, in the very back, a weird kind of shrine to perfume--various bottles arranged on a cloth-draped table.
The very sharp-eyed may pick out an old black-and-white photograph of a woman selling something from a cart on a beach boardwalk. That something is one of the great surprises of Chez Sylvie: The woman is selling socca ("She sells socca by the seashore?"). Socca is a great Nicoise street food, something like a crisp tortilla made from chickpea flour, dusted with a generous helping of black pepper.
The really miraculous thing is that Chez Sylvie--one of the few places in the United States where socca is sold at all--makes a very good socca. What's more, from time to time, Sylvie also serves tourte de blettes, a wonderful Nicoise tart filled with Swiss chard, pine nuts and raisins. (When was the last time you saw that on a menu?)
Simple things are best at Chez Sylvie. The pissaladiere is made the authentic way, with a flaky savory pastry crust, sweet, slowly browned onions, a reassuring jolt of anchovy and perfect little Nicoise olives (with pits). The onion soup is made with a rich-tasting beef stock and onions cooked so slowly they've almost turned to sugar. It doesn't come with a gratineed crouton unless you order it that way (this ain't Pay-Ree). The homemade terrine is pleasantly crumbly and livery and comes with sweet-tart cornichons and more of those great little black olives.
After the appetizers, things can get a little shaky. The best of the sandwiches is the pan bagnat, a small French loaf stuffed with hard-boiled eggs and a vinegary salad of bell peppers, onions and anchovies, kind of a Nicoise salad on bread. The Nicoise salad itself is fine but not as distinctive as the other regional dishes.
At dinner, Chez Sylvie also has a couple of specials, usually fairly simple stews: boeuf Bourguignon, rabbit in mustard, things like that. If you're hungry, go ahead and get them, but be aware that they are not what the restaurant does best. And although they're certainly reasonably priced (usually in the $10 to $12 range), they're enough to boost the cost of the meal considerably.
You're better off stocking up on appetizers and putting the extra money into a bottle of wine. There are only half-a-dozen labels available, but there are some real finds. You hardly expect to find a 1994 Delas Freres Viognier on a restaurant wine list for $18, or a perfectly decent Co^tes du Rho^ne for $16. Grab them when you do.
Desserts at Chez Sylvie tend to be either crepes, coupes or tarts. With the exception of the tourte de blettes, which hasn't been offered lately, they're good but not exceptional. Richness seems to be the operative concept here. The best crepe is stuffed with bananas and an intense chocolate sauce. The coupes are three scoops of ice cream and lots of topping. Sylvie makes a nice tart crust, but even the apple tart has a creamy filling.
Still, it feels kind of picky putting a coffee shop under this kind of scrutiny. Besides, if everything was as perfect as we'd like, it would be just another fancy French restaurant.
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WHERE TO GO
Chez Sylvie, 272 Redondo Ave., Long Beach, (310) 433-1558. Open 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m. to noon and 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday; 9 a.m. to noon Sunday. Wine. Cash only. Dinner for two, food only, $12 to $40.
WHAT TO ORDER
Socca, assiette de terrine, pissaladiere, pan bagnat, tourte de blettes.