Welcome back to Dining On A Dime a bi-weekly feature in which Lizbeth Scordo surveys LA's cheap eats—often obscure, ethnic, unsung restaurants—proving that dining on a dime is alive, well, and quite tasty in this here city. Where do you think she should go next? Drop us a line.
Driving down Jefferson Boulevard, past a stretch of warehouses, before turning just beyond a cash-and-carry wholesale grocery store with a parking lot surrounded by a barbed wire fence, it's hard to imagine that in just a few minutes I'll be sitting down at a little French café that serves freshly baked quiche and croissants. From the street, Normandie looks just like the other nondescript behemoth buildings nearby, but a closer look reveals the building's awning-covered patio complete with potted ferns, smooth jazz piping through the speakers, and coffee mugs filled with roses on every table. When I arrive, there are only two women sitting outside, sipping coffee and sharing a pastry and an egg sandwich. Most of the action is inside the tiny retail bakery, showcasing a variety of breads, freshly baked muffins, cookies, and perfectly frosted cakes.
But Normandie's real bread and butter comes from its wholesale business, and thus, what the rest of the giant building is used for, selling its housemade baked goods and specialty pates to restaurants and grocery chains. (Incidentally, the pates are available for sale in the bakery too.) French-born owner Josette LeBlond spends most of her time, believe it or not, in Las Vegas running a new Fremont Street eatery called Las Vegas Rocks Café along with Vegas entertainer Tony Sacca. But her spirit is still with us via a muted wall-mounted flat-screen TV in the bakery currently showing a well-dressed LeBlond lecturing an audience in what looks to be a cross between an infomercial and a gubernatorial candidate's town-hall meeting.
The breakfast menu is made up of just six items — brioche French toast and several egg dishes including an omelet stuffed with buffalo mozzarella, tomato, and basil and served with sautéed potatoes; and an egg sandwich on a Kaiser roll with either ham or bacon. I go with the French toast and a cup of coffee and head outside for a seat on the patio where I watch a steady stream of people hustle in and out with full bags of goodies. The lunch (and early dinner, I suppose, since the place closes at 6PM) menu features some bistro staples like a Nicoise salad, quiche Lorraine, French onion soup, coq au vin, and a charcuterie plate, but also offers some seemingly out-of-place items including chicken wings, a meatball parmigiana sandwich on ciabatta, and an Italian sub.
The French toast looks lovely when it arrives with two thick and golden pieces of bread dusted with powdered sugar and served alongside a ramekin of real maple syrup. Unfortunately, it's a different story when I dig in. Though I love the dish's fragrant vanilla-cinnamon flavors, both pieces of bread are far too soggy, almost doughy even, in the middle, and turn to mush (or bread pudding if you're the glass-half-full type) with just a dash of the syrup. I'm forced to stick to the crusty perimeters.
I'm not through with Normandie yet, however, and head back inside to grab some baked goods — a croissant, a baguette, and a stack of cookies — to take home. I can't help but wonder if I ordered the wrong breakfast item (though how can you go wrong with brioche French toast?) or if the kitchen had an off moment. The woman at the counter encourages me to come back for lunch some day to try their signature and quite popular turkey and brie sandwich, which the menu touts as "not found elsewhere." Guess no one's ever challenged them on that one.
Later that day, when I delve into the gleaming croissant, I'm surprised by the negligible amount of grease that's shown up on the thin paper bag it's been sitting in for several hours. The soft, pillowy pastry is still moist without being oily or too rich. Normandie's recipe seems to go a little lighter on the butter content, turning out a croissant that's refreshingly savory and made up of layers that pull apart perfectly without wasting a crumb. And at $1.50, it's cheaper than most other good croissants in town.
The traditional French baguette is also impressive, with a hearty, crusty exterior and a light and airy inside. After heating it up a couple of minutes, the bread makes a perfect addition to a pasta dinner I cook up that night. And finally, my all-day-anti-Atkins marathon winds down with a few cookies. The chocolate chip is just fine, but the oatmeal-raisin version is especially nice and soft with a jolt of nutmeg and chewy, sweet raisins. The best of the bunch, however, are the crunchy palmiers, slightly sticky and flaky, and brilliantly dusted with salt to balance out the caramelized sweetness.
I'm not sure if I'll be sitting down to another meal at Normandie anytime soon; there are too many other breakfast and lunch spots I'd rather hit. But standout bakeries? Those are much harder to come by, and I'll surely be back to grab a carb fix to go again soon.
Breakfast items: $5.25 to $7.25
Lunch and Dinner items: $4.25 to $15.95