Sierra Madre has always been a charming little suburb tucked into the San Gabriel foothills, so it is appropriate that a charming little French bistro named Faubourg recently opened there. Faubourg (pronounced foh-boor) translates as “outside city” or more simply, “suburb.” Moving in to the space previously occupied by Zugo’s, Executive Chef Anthony Bar and his team transformed the place into a modern cafe where time-honored and contemporary techniques merge to bring out the true essence of a dish.
The decor is crisper, cleaner, with white marble, modern brass lighting and a wide, strategically placed mirror. The wonderful hinged, multi-paned front windows are unchanged, creating for all intents and purposes an indoor outdoor cafe. The black canopy over the sidewalk frames the pretty trees across the street. It’s more modern and perhaps more casual than a bistro in, say, Saint Germaine, but it definitely exudes an air of Parisian charm.
My daughter and I went in for a celebratory graduation meal one recent afternoon. Eating a fine lunch at 3 p.m. felt so luxurious and tres Parisienne. I liked the way Chef Bar sat in the back of the otherwise empty cafe, speaking with the wine supplier in French. They shared a wine sample or two with us and invited us back for an official tasting or at least a free wine flight. We were well taken care of by the server who was not exactly well-versed in the dish ingredients but who always got an answer for us. They’ve only been open a couple of months and the important things are in place: A solid menu with a distinct voice, a varied wine list with generous pours, gorgeous sweets and excellent coffee drinks.
Simone and I opted for the tarte aux legumes to start, a plank of flaky puff pastry topped with croquant (crisp) vegetables. Steamed red and yellow beets, raw watermelon radish, homemade pickled carrots and gorgeous creamy farmer’s market goat cheese each sported their own unique flavors and textures. Viscous boiled egg halves graced the top. Onion marmalade held it together (sort of). We ate every crumb.
We moved on to Ravioli du Homard Maison and Scottish salmon with ratatouille. Our impressions were similar — the flavors tasted so true, so authentic. The lobster ravioli tasted so lobstery, the Scottish salmon so salmony. It was shortly after that we noticed a quote hand scribed on the wall: “la cuisine, c’est quand les choses ont le goût de ce qu’elle sont” which generally translates as “cuisine is when things have the taste of what they are.” I guess we got their point.
Neither ravioli nor Scottish salmon are classic French dishes, but contemporary French chefs aren’t feeling hemmed in by tradition these days. Alexandre Cammas, founder of Le Fooding, a French culinary organization, recently declared, “More and more, French chefs are resolutely modern and freeing themselves by cooking what they please, opening places without rules, maintaining their individuality and no longer looking to please old or new institutions.” So, instead of classic sweet, buttery lobster meat, the lobster in the ravioli had a rustic, almost wood-fired flavor making it taste “more like the thing it is.” The authenticity may have gone a little too far with the stray bits of shell, but I didn’t mind. The house-made pasta had a nice tooth, the lobster bisque sauce was appropriately decadent and the wild mushrooms added a nutty, sweet element. All in all, it was delicious.
The salmon was succulent and tender, most likely caught in the wild, and came with a disc of eggplant-heavy ratatouille on a red pepper-almond paste base. That red pepper sauce was wonderful but I admit the rest of the plate left less of an impression. Still, it’s hard to deny the skill in preparation. Chef Bar could not have prepared it, however, as he was in the front of the restaurant the whole time we were there. Well-trained staff, I assume.
Bar moved to the US four years ago from Paris. A third generation chef and graduate of culinary school, Bar traveled in Spain, Belgium, the Caribbean and elsewhere before settling in Southern California. His technique seems steeped in traditional French comfort food but seasoned with modern European and American influences. I can imagine the very handsome Bar hitting the celebrity chef circuit soon and making quite a splash.
We finished with a perfect cappuccino and a fresh berry tart to share. Left over from breakfast that day, the pâté sucrée crust, pastry cream filling and ripe, juicy berries were still as fresh as the morning dew. I think Faubourg would be a wonderful place to stop in for a morning coffee and pastry to watch the world go by through a pair of French-colored glasses. They also do a good looking weekend brunch with bottomless mimosas. Plus they’re dog friendly.
I haven’t been there for dinner, but I wouldn’t expect to get out of there for less than $100 for two. The wine list is extensive and I believe you can trust their judgment. The house reds and whites are delicious and a bargain at $5 per glass. They have a Social Hour (I like the twist on Happy Hour) daily from 4 to 6 p.m. with a menu that includes their popular burger on a homemade brioche bun (sometimes made with charcoal).
I value restaurants that create food based on a personal philosophy. Serve what you like and a certain portion of the population will like it too. For a fresh take on modern French cuisine, check out Faubourg and Executive Chef Bar’s commitment to food’s true flavors.