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C'est L'amour 

by STEVEN R. NEUMAN & r & & r & As a restaurant critic it's always troubling, but not unwelcome, to realize that you've fallen head over heels for a potential review. After a close inspection of Madeleine's Caf & eacute; and Patisserie during many visits it seems nearly impossible to resist the inevitable and studied perfection of this little jewel in downtown Spokane.





It doesn't hurt that I took years of French from middle school to college, imbuing me with the sense that enjoying a cup of coffee and a pastry in Paris is the height of sophistication, but clearly this is more than just a passing flight of Francophile frenzy. Yes, there are croque monsieur sandwiches (French ham and cheese) and croissants, but these are not just for show -- they are also really, really good.





First, there's the superbly balanced Doma espresso that never seems to miss a beat. I found myself free to drink plain espresso with just a drop of half and half without shudders or hesitation because the shots are pulled perfectly. Nevertheless, this ain't no coffeeshop -- as a caf & eacute;, Madeleine's really delivers that laid-back experience. Drinks are affordable: on average, about a dollar cheaper than a comparable beverage at another green-labeled coffee chain just five storefronts down. Service too seems a cut above -- there's no desperate shrieking of overly intricate drink orders, and if you're inclined to actually sit and drink (and it seems most people are at Madeleine's) the warm, smiling staff will deliver your order to a table.





For lunch, the salad trio plate ($9) -- your choice of any three salads from the large case -- is not to be missed. The quiches ($5), a caf & eacute; staple, rotate ingredients but are always blessed with a perfectly crisp and buttery crust. The pesto pasta salad with peas delivers a sublime punch of spring even in this frigid winter, and the curried chicken salad is a spicy delight packed with fruit and aroma. The one sour note in all my lunches was a mayonnaise-drenched ham-and-pasta salad that lacked the flavor and surprise I'd come to expect.





In particular, I found one inspired sandwich special that pops up often and puts others to shame: a wonderful turkey, cheese and apple concoction on a beautiful seeded eight-grain bread with a trim side salad or a cup of marvelously rich tomato soup ($8). I've had this both grilled and plain, and it is hands down one of the best caf & eacute; sandwiches you can find downtown.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & M & lt;/span & adeleine's has rapidly become one of my favorite spots to grab a small lunch practically just on ambiance alone. With periwinkle walls, sun-gold trim and massive picture windows looking out on a busy street corner, it's nearly impossible not to enjoy eating or sipping, even alone. Somehow it is light and airy and cozy simultaneously. The tables seem plucked randomly from farmhouses and cafes (although I have no doubt that this element was also intentional), and there's a real pleasure in having food with friends at this spot -- especially as the busier day crowd settles into dinner, offered mainly on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.





Table service at dinner seemed so fluid and relaxed that I felt like I was having a meal at a good friend's house rather than a restaurant. Plates were brought promptly and whisked away without any of the pretensions of a white-linen establishment.





The appetizers and entr & eacute;es are basically French comfort food, and it's all affordable luxury. After staking out a date night one Thursday we piled on a lot of appetizers. A basket of ultra-crunchy pommes frites (French fries with garlic and herbs) was served with a creamy aioli for dipping ($4). Not too salty and perfectly golden, these fries put McDonald's to shame. We also dished up the cheese plate ($9), which surprised us with its scope and size. With apples, cured meats, four or five different cheeses, fig jam and bread, this inexpensive appetizer easily could have been a light supper for one.





When it came time for the second course there were many seafood options on the menu but I opted for the Coq au Vin Blanc ($15) and my companion could barely contain her glee to order Steak au Poivre ($15). Each came with a proper little side salad of organic garden greens, lightly dressed, that handily beat most of the limp, wilted leaves I've had recently at other establishments.





The chicken came perfectly deboned with a luscious mound of mashed potatoes and two asparagus spears. The chicken was perfectly cooked, not an easy feat. The skin was crisp and crusted with herbs and the meat, juicy and tender without being undercooked. I was a bit disappointed with the texture of the gravy-like wine sauce with vegetables, thinking it seemed too thick for a true coq au vin, but it held up well against the relatively rustic mashed potatoes.





The steak filets, served on skewers atop a mound of more frites, were accompanied by an intensely rich gravy that perfectly highlighted the lean but flavorful beef. The out-of-season asparagus was a little woody but not inedible.





Our server, who also happened to be the owner, noticed the duplication of frites from appetizer to entr & eacute;e and generously offered a bowl of mashed potatoes smothered in the steak gravy.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & ecause Madeleine's is a bakery as well, the desserts and baked goods are unrivaled in their freshness. At an earlier visit (strictly a dessert-and-coffee night) the carrot cake, one of my small obsessions, was so moist it did not require a glass of milk. The cr & egrave;me brulee, while creamy, sweet and technically perfect, was not as much of a standout as the buttery chocolate croissant.





With food like this, who needs Paris?

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