Le Pain Quotidien: Not Your Corner Olive Garden

While I was studying in Paris last spring, a French friend of mine asked if we should get a group together for brunch at Le Pain Quotidien. Normally, with chain restaurants so ubiquitous that their websites have a “choose a country” option, I would stick up my nose in disgust at the Cheesecake Factory/Olive Garden-izing of the restaurant world. Chains are all mass-produced, impersonal, formulaic, lumberjack-sized portions-at-recession-friendly-prices of unhealthy, uninspired glop, right? Yes, for the most part. Somehow, however, Le Pain Quotidien has conquered the world with the opposite of the never-ending pasta bowl or bang-bang chicken that seems to be most attractive to a global eating audience.

Le Pain Quotidien is such a large enterprise that residents of Moscow can choose from no fewer than 11 of them when they feel like eating quinoa and tartines instead of borscht. Yet Le Pain Quotidien fits in so perfectly in Claremont that it’s hard to think of it as a worldwide empire. It anchors a prominent side of the Laemmle-Yogurtland-Casa Moreno plaza that seems to have become Claremont’s de facto town square. The fight for a coveted table to bask in the sun has become as intense as the nightly rugby scrums for a seat at the Back Abbey.

The philosophy at Le Pain Quotidien comes from the yogic “your body is a temple” school of thought. Portions are smaller, every ingredient better darn well be organic, and even your choice of sugars comes down to 100 percent pure cane, agave nectar, or some non-processed sweetener. Like so many new restaurants today, the dining room is dominated by an enormous communal table, where families with toddlers, professors, and a constant stream of people just back from bike rides or the gym sit next to each other and enjoy hearty and relatively overpriced breakfasts of organic omega-3 berry boost oatmeal with flaxseed, lunches of bountiful salads, or the signature open faced tartines.

It is in those tartines, and their various other baked goods, that Le Pain Quotidien truly shines. Inspired by the dainty finger sandwiches of upper-class English tea parlors, the tartines feature various toppings on slices of levain bread, which is similar to but not as strong tasting as sourdough. You can’t go wrong with any of them, though some—like the rustic tuna with white beans and hummus—are merely good, while others—like the smoked salmon with avocado, or the prosciutto with sundried tomatoes, mozzarella, and an addicting basil pesto—are the pinnacle of what you hope for in a lunch.

Nearly every table, at all times of the day, orders a bread and pastry basket of some sort. The croissants are excellent on their own, but less so when served as the platform for a ham and gruyere combination that destroy the croissant’s elegant flakiness. The pain au chocolates here are better than all the ones I tried in Paris except for the legendary Pierre Hermé’s, and the baguettes would satisfy any Parisian’s taste. The baguettes are perfect for organic (of course) spreads such as a Nutella knock-off and various jams, or—as I discovered—for dipping into one of the greatest olive oils you will ever encounter, a variety from Tunisia. I now go to Le Pain Quotidien simply to eat bread and olive oil.

This being a health-conscious place, salads have a prominent role. The quinoa, arugula, chickpea, and artichoke salad was enjoyable yet very skimpy for the price tag. In fact, it’s safe to say that nearly all servings are slightly smaller than you’ll find anywhere else in the Village, yet prices remain higher than any competitors around.

Compared to the morning and afternoon rush, dinner is often empty and the menu still needs some work. Recently, I tried the salmon with a green apple yogurt that tasted nothing like apple, and a miniscule fennel salad with prosciutto bits and avocado had no connecting element whatsoever. The six-vegetable quiche tasted as if it was made with one indistinguishable mushy vegetable. Combined with its gluten-free buckwheat crust, the quiche was so soggy it conjured up horrible memories of dining in United Airlines coach, back when the airlines could afford to feed you.

The service is always very affable, yet still needs some help with the pacing. At times, servers can be a bit too caught up in the relaxed, yogic mentality of the place; other times, the food arrives in a flash.

Ambitious cooking may not be the strong point of Le Pain Quotidien. However, sitting on the sunny patio with a breakfast pastry, a baguette with a definitive chocolat chaud, or a tartine at lunch is as enjoyable as dining gets around here. All of this from a restaurant you could also visit in Dubai.

At least there is one good chain in the food world.

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