“Behold the face of the man: Spartacus in full flight!”

I know yesterday was the 4th of July.  Hooray, let’s gather to watch orchestrated explosives that are supposed to thrill us with pretty colors rather than terrify us with their unabashed mimicry of open warfare.  (Fireworks that explode to create peace signs: Fireworks manufacturers mocking our intelligence? I interpret it as such.)

“It’s great to have him back after three years of myopic, egocentric zombies parading themselves in front of our noggins. It’s great to have the killer back. Stack the bodies high.”

More importantly, yesterday was the opening stage of the 2009 Tour de France.  Those who were readers at this time in ’08 may remember last year’s paen to the Tour, which we watch obsessively every year and which is inspiring me to get off my ass and back on the bike.

In honor of Le Tour, we felt it only appropriate to go to our local French bistro, Madame Claude Cafe, and I will be captioning photos in this post with the bon mots of the wonderfully hyperbolic commentators Paul Sherwen, Bob “Bobke” Roll and the Duke of Delighted Distortion, Phil Liggett (“The man in red has won the day! No, wait, that was a car!”).*

Again I say: I understand that watching the Tour may be boring to many, much the way I am stultified by televised baseball, golf and the Flava of Love.**  But just today there were two crashes, one rider was nearly run down by his own support car and one guy accidentally WENT THE WRONG WAY, rode directly into some people who were attempting to follow the actual race route, caused several others to crash and/or go the wrong way and narrowly avoided a full-on collision with a thankfully nimble French policeman.

*In his defense he can’t really help himself; his excitement and perception have an inversely proportional relationship. He also has to do his commentary from a tiny, windowless room the size of a broom closet, possibly resulting in hypoxia. He does, however, have a prodigious knowledge of every professional cyclist past, present and, I assume, future.

**Okay, I’m more horrified than stultified by that last one.

“The average resident of Montecarlo can cross the country of Monaco on foot in 56 minutes.”

To honor America as well, we ordered an amount of food that would seem like a nice brunch out for a special occasion to most Americans but would horrify the average Frenchperson, so it was really a win-win, or avantageux pour les deux parties.

We sat under a tree festooned with lights and painfully whimsical fabric flowers drinking excellent cafe au lait out of large bowls (which is as it should be), as we primed our brunch engines with toasted croissants – pure butter in pastry form – and homemade jam. The friendly, laid back owners of Madame Claude, which is named after a brothel, are a pair of French expats who do not brook shitty cafe or sub-par croissants.

Luckily, we were there without Brian’s sister Jodi, who is a smart, funny, big-hearted person who loves jam with such an uncontrollable and overwhelming love that last time she ate the whole pot. Note to Madame Claude: this is why you should not put spoons in the jam pots, the spoon is an enabler. Since we were sans Jodi today, we were able to enjoy our jam in a leisurely fashion without the need to constantly monitor jam pot levels.

“He’s dancing on his pedals in a most immodest way!”

While we munched, Brian noticed this mural painted on one of the buildings across the street that wasn’t there during our last visit (the mural, not the building).  I like to imagine that the one on the left is you when arrive at the Cafe, and the one on the right is what you look like after you’ve tried to take Jodi’s jam. She’s small but feisty.

“Today’s time trial is just ten miles, or thirty-six times the height of the Empire State Building.”*

A normal breakfast might just be cafe au lait and croissants, and indeed it might have been this time were we not there in the interests of blogular journalism.  But a bistro cannot be reviewed on croissants alone, so we had to order entrees as well.

I ordered perennial brunch favorite the Croque Madame (re-created at home here).  Madame Claude’s version of this classic sandwich is pared down but no less worthy thanks to quality ingredients: ham, emmenthaler, crusty bread and a fried egg with crisp brown edges.  Rather than the bechamel topping many iterations sport, Claude’s is just more cheese, broiled until bubbling and crusty.  On the side, a mesclun salad with a simple but perfect vinaigrette.

*Never let it be said that the commentary does not combine entertainment and education.

There’s no reason to rush into hell.”

Brian went with a crepe, an enormous spinach-and-goat cheese stuffed affair that was really more like a burrito with a crepe wrapping than the delicate little triangular picture most of us probably conjure. (Note: This was not a bad thing.)

It was topped with – of course – a fried egg, and served with more of the mesclun.  Again, high quality ingredients, prepared simply and fresh to order.

And the classic: “He’s wearing the mask of pain.”

It seemed foolhardy to order a savory crepe to the exclusion of the sweet, so we finished up with La Belle Helaine, filled with roasted pears and dark chocolate.  Unlike the pound of spinach Brian easily and happily downed, an overfilled sweet crepe would be overwhelming (although I wouldn’t send it back) and Madame Claude knows it.  The ethereal crepe is lightly filled with tender caramelized pear with enough chocolate to cover the fruit and ooze out gently as you hack rabidly at cut into it with your fork.

This certainly wasn’t our first trip to Madame Claude, and I can vouch for the rest of their food: the soupe a l’oignon is truly exemplary, their mussels (available with a variety of sauces/cooking liquids) are uniformly well-done, the Friday-night boulliabaise special has never not been killer, and the duck confit with lardons and white beans in a warm vinaigrette is robust and hearty while still delicate and not overly fatty or heavy.

They’re BYOB but will happily uncork you and put your white on ice and they’re cash-only, so be forewarned. They’re also a favorite of French and French-Canadians in town, so you’ll often be surrounded by French-speakers, momentarily transporting you.  (The decidedly European attitude also means a good-natured but lax service experience, so it maybe shouldn’t be your choice when time-sensitivity is an issue.)

I’ve never been a sports bar aficionado, but if Madame Claude installed a big-screen television to show the Tour or Paris-Roubaix, I’d be there every night slurping down onion soup with a bottle of bordeaux as Phil Liggett yells, “The elastic has snapped!”

Madame Claude Cafe
364 1/2 4th St, Jersey City NJ
Tues – Wed, 4pm – 10pm
Thu – Fri, 4pm -11pm
Sat 9am –  11pm
Sun 9am – 10pm

ONE YEAR AGO: Dining With Ethel

Some of today’s captions are from yesterday’s and today’s race commentary; the remainder are courtesy of Todd Carrier’s Phil Liggett Fan Page. Thanks, Todd!