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Menu Please: Cafe Paradiso – French food in Redding? Mais oui!

Ever since the Cascade Theater reopened gloriously in 2004 with that sublime Mark O’Connor concert, there’s been a certain mumbling and rumbling from patrons: why isn’t there anywhere to go downtown after a show? Well, there’s Spoon Me… and…  Bombay’s…. aaaannnnd…. uh…. ummmm… well… let’s go to Denny’s. Or IHOP. Or home.

To that end, Cafe Paradiso opened in early 2013 to fill a need: a place to go late at night for a drink and a snack without going to a bar. Housed in the former Thai Bistro location on Yuba Street between Sally’s (Salvation Army) and a florist, it’s an unlikely bistro home of French cooking. A very small space of about a dozen tables seating two to four and a limited menu ensures service doesn’t become overwhelmed. More importantly, the food is prepared to order, not defrosted or waiting on a steam table. The interior is painted olive green, gold, and orchid; bare-topped tables at lunch get the white cloth treatment in the evening.

Femme de Joie was interested in trying this new venture downtown. While the food is quite good, there were a few things that made her go, “Hmmmm….”

Caesar salad, $5.00

This Caesar salad was lovely to look at and delicious to eat, once Femme de Joie located the part of the salad that had dressing on it. For reasons untold, the top inch or so of Romaine was sprinkled with Parmesan cheese but otherwise was naked as a jay bird. Once she prodded around in the dish, the dressed salad was located underneath the first layer of inexplicably plain lettuce.

Fettucine with shrimp, scallops, and crab, $12.00

Let us be honest: this was the smallest serving of fettucine – nay, of any kind of pasta – ever placed before M. de Joie. Ever. She wondered if perhaps this was some kind of test to see if she would explode in righteous indignation, or if she would shut up and eat it. Not one to make a scene on most occasions, she ate it. Four large grilled shrimp were perfectly cooked with a slightly crisp exterior and tender meat. Two or three scallops had been sauteed to a light brown – not easy to do well – without being dried out. The crab was completely lost in the mixture of fettucine, cream, and cheese, though the fettucine was al dente and not gummy. However, the dish was on the dry side and needed more sauce.

Cream of mushroom soup, $4.00

Creamed soups often remind one of Campbell’s Cream of Mystery, but the version at Cafe Paradiso was excellent. Fresh sauteed mushrooms floated in a delicate creamy base of half-and-half tempered with broth so as not to feel fatty and globulous. One of the few versions that doesn’t make the diner call out for a defibrillator afterwards.

Large Southwestern Salad with avocado, $8.00

This started out as a $6.00 Southwestern Salad with an addition of avocado to make it an $8.00 Southwestern Salad. If you look closely, you can see four scalpel-cut slices of avocado on the upper left side. Crispy tortilla strips, diced tomato, corn kernels, and cotija cheese decorated a lovely stack of arugula-strong mesclun. Served with an addictively tart lime-chipotle aioli, this was a very good rendition of a salad that’s become a staple on many menus. As Femme de Joie happily worked her way down through the salad, she discovered a stratum of chopped Romaine underneath the mesclun. Normally, all green leafy participants in a salad are tossed together like college youth of yore in a telephone booth, so she was bemused to find the Romaine looking like a poor relative of the privileged lettuces, hiding its head in embarrassment, Perhaps the person assembling the salad started to make a Caesar, then rather than toss out the Romaine, covered it up. Perhaps this is the Bump-it of salads – like Snooki wearing that plastic dome on her head, Romaine is used to artificially floof up the mesclun. Perhaps this is the new trend in salads – rather than mix all the greens, they will be layered like cakes. It’s a mystery. The truth may never be known.

Wine flight, $8.00 for one person, $15.00 for two people

A wine flight is a offering of several wines, usually (but not always) with a common theme – varietal, terroir, maker, and so on. This wine flight is served as an appetizer and seemed to not have anything binding them together. From left to right, a Ruffino white from Tuscany with Granny Smith apples, a Mouton-Cadet Bordeaux with aged Cheddar on a Carr’s water cracker, and Chocolate Shop with a house-made brownie. By far the Ruffino and apple was the most successful pairing. Mineral and flinty, the cold Ruffino bounced off tart apples that was stimulating and exciting. Mouton-Cadet sounds prestigious but it is a brand – perhaps the first brand name of wines in France – and the wines are generic and inexpensive. Owned now by Constellation, it’s a wine to not get one’s hopes up over. After tasting the Ruffino, the blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc was disappointing and muddy.  A flake of aged Cheddar needed a little stage to star on, but what it got was a Carr’s Water Cracker. For a thankfully brief time, M. de Joie thought it was a sign of good taste and prestige to serve Carr’s; she now knows that if you’re going to serve crackers, be sure to get ones that don’t taste like burned cardboard. Merlot infused with chocolate sounds like a dessert wine, and it is, but it went surprisingly well as part of this flight. The brownie was on the dry side but it made the chocolate wine sing.

Ahi with lemon, garlic, butter, and capers ($19.00) and twice-baked potato ($4.00)

Beet salad, $5.00

Ahi (tuna) resembles beef more than other fish; slices of prime ahi look very much like rare steak. The texture is firmer than many other fish and it lends itself well to strong seasonings and sauces. It is frequently served seared so the interior remains dark red and meaty. At Cafe Paradiso, it was served medium, meaning the narrow end of the steak as well at the edges were well-done – which is overdone. Coated with a lemon, garlic, butter, and caper sauce that seemed to be losing its emulsion rapidly, it was a disappointment compared to what it could have been. On the side, a twice-baked potato was leaking butter that mixed with the caper sauce, creating a lemony oleaginous puddle. In a separate bowl was beet salad – roasted cubed beets reclining on greens. It tasted like beets and nothing but beets – M. de Joie could not detect any flavorings, sauces, dressings or other garnishes. She likes beets quite a lot, and these were tasty enough, but there was nothing about it that made her want to order it again.

Femme de Joie would like to see Cafe Paradiso succeed. The food is quite good, though the preparation and presentation are uneven. She has a little laundry list of opinions, of course:

Cafe Paradiso, 1270 Yuba Street (between Pine and East), Redding, CA 96001. 530-215-3499. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch, 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM, dinner 5:00 PM – 10:00 PM. Open late nights Thursday through Saturday for wine/beer/special menu, 10:00 PM – 1:00 AM. Closed Sunday. Beer and wine. Vegetarian and vegan options. Street parking. Website here or follow them on Facebook.

Femme de Joie’s first culinary masterpiece was at age 4, when she made the perfect fried bologna sandwich on white bread. Since then she has dined on horse Bourguignon in France, stir-fried eel in London, and mystery meat in her college cafeteria, but firmly draws the line at eating rattlesnake, peppermint and Hamburger Helper. She lives in Shasta County at her country estate, Butterscotch Acres West. She is nearly always hungry. Visit MenuPlease for more or send her an email at femmedejoiefood@yahoo.com.

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