Soup is good food

La Bonne Soupe Cafe

920 Eighth St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 492-9506

At the new and tiny downtown lunch spot La Bonne Soupe Cafe, the name nearly says it all: The soup is indeed good. There are also sandwiches and a few salads, but not much more at this minimalist and very French spot. It’s a one-man show for owner Daniel Pont, a transplanted Frenchman whose Diplôme d’Honneur certificate and various awards for his cooking hang on the wall.

When you walk in, Pont is doing it all: chatting in his native French with a customer while slicing the meat and cutting a mini-baguette for a sandwich and dishing up bowls of soup. The French conversation, in fact, relates to the soup; he’s assuring the visitor (evidently another Frenchman) that the soup is indeed fresh, homemade and never from a can. Two types, vegetarian and cream of vegetable, are on the menu—a large printed board that greets you as you line up behind the glass counter, where you can watch Pont assemble lunches to order. There are another couple of types on the handwritten daily-special menu: French onion and cream of asparagus. The freshness of the latter is attested to by a bunch of asparagus standing proudly behind the counter.

Tables are small, few and hotly contested. There was much jockeying in line and craning of necks to see who was finishing up and whether we’d get a table, but in the end it all worked out. By the time our order was up, a guy had finished his sandwich, handed his empty plate back to Pont behind the counter (a self-bussing etiquette rules the day) and left the table open for us.

I ordered the cream-of-vegetable soup—an unassuming little bowl of fragrant liquid, beige with tiny brown flecks—and a braised pork sandwich from the specials board. To make the latter, Pont opened a well-used enameled oval braising dish, revealing pork tenderloin, his well-browned braising liquid and a few aromatic vegetables. He sliced the meat; layered it on a baguette with lettuce, tomatoes and herb mayonnaise; and, spoon poised, asked if I wanted the braising jus. Definitely.

My husband’s French onion soup was constructed with less elaboration than we are used to seeing in this country. Instead of a crock heavily topped with cheese and broiled, here the soup consisted of a chunk of baguette placed in a bowl, sprinkled with grated cheese and topped with hot, oniony broth. The cheese melted into a delicious amalgamation. The bowl was none the worse for its simplicity, which allowed the true flavor of the beefy broth and caramelized onions to shine. We both loved it, and it got a further commendation as well: I dipped a finger in and let our infant daughter, who was sitting in my lap, taste the broth, to nonverbal but enthusiastic reviews.

My sandwich lived up to the delightful show of watching its construction, with the tender and deeply flavorful meat and jus contrasting nicely with the tangy mayonnaise. The little baguette was also excellent, with its crisp, thin crust and a crumb that was moister and less fluffy than many French-style breads. The same sandwich construction served my husband’s sandwich well, also: He had smoked duck breast, also sliced to order, with a dusky and smoky flavor. Other sandwich options include more American-style cold sandwiches as well as very French items like pâté Provençal with cornichons. (The charcuterie, such as the duck breast and the pâté, are not made in house but purchased; Pont says modestly that he can’t do all the cooking and be a charcutier.) Salads, which we didn’t try, are available also, along with a couple of entrees, among them poached salmon.

I wasn’t sure what my cream-of-vegetable soup would be like—the vegetables weren’t specified—but it was wonderful. There was a hint of mushroom flavor in a smooth mixed-vegetable base, the deliciously melded savoriness rounded out by just the right amount of cream. Together with a sandwich, it was a perfect lunch for a chilly winter day, made even more so by the convivial atmosphere in Pont’s little storefront cafe. I had planned to get an espresso and a madeleine to go at the end of our meal, but when the baby figured out that no more tastes of soup would be forthcoming, she decided it was time to leave and made her displeasure known by howling. As I apologized, Pont waved it off by saying, “No, no, madame, I have two grandchildren.”

By that time, the line was long, and Pont moved through the orders briskly. A customer asked whether he was like the soup Nazi of Seinfeld fame, and he laughed and demurred. For the record, he’s not at all. As far as I’m concerned, he’s more of a soup French Resistance: one man, all alone, working for a good cause—in this case, that of providing excellent, made-from-scratch lunches in a charmingly tiny downtown cafe. It’s an island of excellence in a sea of mediocrity, and it’s well worth a little wait to snag one of the tiny tables and have a bowl of Pont’s delicious, honest soups.