Open Monday through Saturday for breakfast, 8 to 11 a.m. (Saturday from 9 a.m.); for lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Saturday until 2:30); for dinner 6 to 10 p.m.; and for teatime weekdays, 3 to 5 p.m. Closed Sunday. Reservations at dinner only. MC, V. Prices: Main courses at lunch average $6.45, for dinner $7.45 to $9.25. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $20 a person.
It took time, and several changes of management, but the charming restaurant adjacent to Country Living in Spring Valley has finely settled into a neighborhood asset. It is now a branch of The Bread Oven--adjacent bakery, two- week-cycle menu and all. And while the formula does not work as well as the downtown Bread Oven (which of course has a different chef), it works.
This uptown Bread Oven takes no back seat to its downtown sibling in terms of its setting. Baskets hang from rough beams, and where the floor is not carpeted it is earthy terra cotta interspersed with tiny flowered tiles. Flowered cushions tied to the bentwood chairs look straight from a grandmotherly breakfast room. The wallpaper is floral and very French, and on the walls are antique pottery and farmhouse decorations as well as the glorious quilts of the Country Living shop. ("It's all for sale," reminds the menu, even the chairs, tables and silverware.) But best of all is the rosy glow from the overhead lights, turning the scene into a Renoir.
The printed menu offers a different meat and fish entree each day, as well as a cold hors d'oeuvre platter, $6.45 for lunch, $7.45 for dinner. The question is whether uptown, like downtown, will order its week by the choucroute alsacienne (first Tuesday), bouillabaisse (first Friday), cassoulet (second Wednesday) or mousse-stuffed trout in puff pastry (second Friday). Saturday has no standing menu, and Sunday the Bread Oven is closed. If you know the downtown Bread Oven, you know the routine.
The bulk of the menu, however, is the daily specials, ordinarily nine appetizers ($2 to $4.25) and eight main courses, divided between meats and seafoods and hovering around $9 at dinner. The Bread Oven leads with its best: soups are excellent here, whether a rough and homey leek and potato or milder, faintly sweet golden carrot soup. Otherwise, appetizers are likely to include a salad, artichoke, mussels (perhaps persillade or in zucchini cream), snails in mushroom caps with walnut butter and a p.at,e or two. Everything reaches the level of adequate: the artichoke is properly cooked and drained, handsomely presented; the p.at,e is compact in texture and mild in flavor, a decent meatloaf; salads are crisp, fresh and smartly dressed. The mussels are more than adequate--plump and tender and interestingly seasoned; the snails, on the other hand, are disappointing. The mushrooms caps and walnut butter are a good idea, but the snails I encountered tasted dried out and acid and the walnut butter, fine on one visit, was bitter on another.
Main courses swing a wider range. Some are delicious, others dismal. The best of all I have tried was bay scallops amandine. (The menu promised "fresh bay scallop," which had us worried for a moment, but the portion turned out to be large after all.) The tiny scallops were lightly floured, well browned in butter, cooked thoroughly but not overly and just slightly seasoned. It was a simple dish that showed that good food need not be flashy. The kitchen also cooked fresh coho salmon beautifully, the pink flesh moist and soft. But its sorrel sauce was harsh and dreadful, tasting like sorrel pur,ee straight from the can.
The cooking of meats is less controlled. Veal scallops in cream and calf's liver with shallots and honey vinegar were bland meats in unremarkable sauces, and steak b,earnaise was greasy meat with a mild b,earnaise and a lot of hot, crisp but tasteless french fries. Roast duck with cassis tasted reheated and steamy, although its hail of whole black currants redeemed it with their bright tartness. And roast lamb was still pink but chewy and dried out, from a reheating process that wrecked what might have been good meat. If you get to the Bread Oven on the second Wednesday of its menu cycle, try the cassoulet, studded with plenty of pungent sausage, duck, lamb and pork; but hope this time they cook the beans a little more and go easy the salt.
It's not great food, but it is hearty and usually pleasant, accompanied by vegetables that have been taken seriously. Maybe pur,eed turnips or leaf spinach, potatoes sliced into a fan and browned, green beans tossed with tomatoes, or even bean sprouts. The vegetables are fresh and well seasoned, a giant step above the routine. And of course the bread is crusty and chewy, The Bread Oven's best. A few wines, fairly priced, and service that is somewhat erratic but determinedly pleasant total up to an agreeable lunch or dinner.
At the Bread Ovens, one has learned, one considers dessert. The choice of pastries is wide, and the trays that are brought around to show them off are merely for show; fresh pastries are fetched from the case. But the pastries, like the preceding courses, are attractive but unexceptional. White or dark chocolate mousses that are thick and sweet, charlotte with cassis and peaches that has a pleasant tartness and perfume, tarts with heavy dough bases but fresh, sprightly fruits. These are pastries that are welcome in a neighborhood bereft of eating places, but not worth a trek across town.
The Bread Oven would be an excellent uptown Sunday supper place if it only were open on Sunday. On close examination, its parts are flawed. But the whole is a restaurant that far exceeds its predecessors and leaves us agreeing that we would readily return.