As French as it gets in Sacramento: Café Rolle

Cafe Rolle

5357 H St.
Sacramento, CA 95819

(916) 455-9140

Across from the higher-profile Selland’s Market-Cafe, the guys under the red-and-white-striped awning crank out fine French salads and sandwiches—simple, traditional, cafe fare from the home country.

At lunchtime, the action is fairly frenzied, with staccato exchanges in French between servers and chef. When the chef places an entree on the table, his “Bon appetit” sounds like a command, not an invitation.

Tables, which aren’t plentiful in the small space, are filled at 1 p.m.—including the three outside in the heat. While waiting for a vacancy, an older woman who is leaving says, “It’s worth the wait.” And so it is. But be assured, waiting is part of the equation, due to both to the restaurant’s petite size and popularity. As my pal Kristin says, “Service is not for the faint of heart.”

Part of the problem—not for Café Rolle’s creditors, of course—is the steady stream of takeout orders that draw the chef’s attention away from the dine-in denizens, forcing them to converse pleasantly, in the manner of home country dining, or puzzle out the sights depicted on the postcards between the glass tabletop and the red-and-white-checked tablecloths below. But, like the lady said, it’s worth the wait. And, on the second visit, the waiter apologizes for the delay.

For the fish lover, the salmon is king—smoked salmon, that is. And management knows it. Of the 12 cold sandwiches on the crowded menu, there’s smoked salmon and brie with dill crème fraîche at $6.50 or the salmon sandwich (for a buck less), which gives the diner an embarrassment of winning options—the smoked salmon, the smoked and cooked salmon or poached. Toujours avec le dill crème fraîche.

Six of the 22 salads feature salmon in one form or another. Salad Dijon blends hot smoked salmon with warm brie on spring mix. The $8.50 salmon salad offers the same options as its sister sandwich. Choose two styles for $11.50.

However, as for personal preferences, salmon is neither king nor queen (nor even knave). Ham is my hero. Here it’s woodsy, stentorian and sweet. It anchors the Salad Lyonnaise of (ubiquitous) spring mix, hard-boiled eggs and walnuts. As is the custom in France, the salad is not defiled by drenching it in dressing. Rather, a few dollops of moutarde (mustard) on the plate suffice and allow the mix of flavors to speak for itself.

The Croque Brie Curry Monsieur sandwich, $9.50, uses the ham to less advantage. The herbes de Provence ham doesn’t have the same heft as the ham in the salad, and what flavor it has is severely subdued by the brie. The curry is well-masked.

A standard croque monsieur sandwich is simply warm ham and Gruyère, a staple of cafes all over France. Café Rolle has it for $8.50. Caramelized onions for a buck more may not be traditional, but they add a certain je ne sais quoi. As they would to the various pâté and foie gras sandwiches.

For those of a geographic bent, the salads offer a gastronomic Tour de France. Besides Lyons, visit Toulouse, Saint-Tropez, Arles, Grenoble, Bordeaux, Normandy and Paris.

Another signature is the pâté. This particular week’s chalkboard special is chicken and goat cheese which, go figure, is a bit cheese-heavy. Je voudrais the politically incorrect duck pâté, or foie gras, s’il vous plaît.

Even with chicken and goat cheese, the $5 charcuterie plate rocks harder than the “succulent, tender prawns marinated in olive oil, garlic and herbs,” another $5 appetizer. While the prawns weren’t hard, they only aspired to succulence. Pick pâté instead, unless spending the extra $2 to lay a foundation of lentil salad under the shrimp.

Keith Richards has often said he wants his tombstone to read: “He passed it on.” He would be proud of the folks at Café Rolle. Pops had a shop in Lyon, it’s his fabled foie gras recipe in use, and Pops’ progeny are passing it on, rather authoritatively, with some tasty flourishes.