With a large selection of readily-made sandwiches, Paul is perfect for the person who wants to grab a lunch, throw it in a bag and go. But for those who appreciate the French style of living and want to sit back and enjoy the lunch hour, the cafe provides a picturesque backdrop. The downtown location is the third Paul Bakery to open in Washington since last year, with existing shops in Penn Quarter and Georgetown.
The menu — which you should definitely ask for if the quick-pace environment at the counter overwhelms you — displays the ingredients in each of the sandwiches, ranging from the basic ham and swiss combination in the Charlemagne Mixte to the smoked salmon, tomato, lettuce and lemon spread of the L’Atlantique. The menu’s vegetarian sandwich options, like the grilled eggplant, roasted peppers and artichoke hearts of the Le Maraicher, might even entice a carnivore. The foundation for each sandwich is Paul’s French bread, which is made fresh every day.
As a croque-monsieur enthusiast, I was glad to find it on the menu, along with its counterpart, the croquet-madame. I chose a newcomer: a croque-monsieur with tomato and mozzarella. When it was quickly brought to my table, the first thing I noticed was the cheese: It dominated the sandwich, providing little opportunity for the tomatoes and pesto spread to shine. Sure, it was tasty (it was covered in cheese for goodness sake), but it made me wish I had not veered from the classic croque.
The meal was redeemed by Paul’s pastry: At the counter, my eyes told my brain to purchase the beautiful strawberry tartlet. The sugar glaze that covered the neatly arranged pile of strawberries made the red fruit shine. The simplicity was fun to taste: The crust was crunchy, the custard was sweet and the strawberries tasted fresh. The experience made me want to try every pastry in the display case, but alas, my stomach can only hold so much.
My suggestion is to fully embrace the French environment. Order an Orangina or a bottle of Perrier, and when the server greets you with “Bonjour,” reply back with the little French you remember from high school.
I’ll give you a head start: “Salut. Comment allez-vous.”
Sarah Waller is a Washington Post intern from Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.