There is a scene in Jacques Tati's film Playtime (1967) in which the ceiling of a stuffy, upscale restaurant collapses around the guests. Amidst the debris, guests excitedly rearrange the furniture. A woman begins to play the piano. A man strums an acoustic guitar. Tati's Parisiens much prefer the carefree and intimate feel of a traditional bistro.
Madame Claude Café, located in Downtown Jersey City, captures the essence of the traditional Bistro Parisien Tati celebrates. Claude is nestled in the Little Italy section of Downtown. The neighborhood is peppered with elegant brownstones and row houses, impressive Romanesque churches and, of course, corner restaurants brimming with joie de vivre.
Mattias Gustafsson and his wife Alice Troletto, both natives of France, are the owners of Madame Claude Café, a charming petit bistro located on the corner of Brunswick and Fourth Streets. I spoke with Gustafsson at one of the Café's outdoor tables. Gustafsson, with his untucked olive button-down and traditional flat cap, radiated with Parisian hospitality. "I feel like the mayor around here," Gustafsson laughingly admitted as he warmly greeted almost every passerby.
Gustafsson, a songwriter and producer by trade, opened Madame Claude eleven years ago. Prior to owning the restaurant, he was a music producer. I was impressed to discover Gustafsson was nominated for a Grammy as producer for a song by the Backstreet Boys. His wife, Alice, has a background in restaurant management. They decided to open their own restaurant, which, undoubtedly, would serve la cuisine française.
One night in the Café, Gustafsson began to play his acoustic guitar alongside his saxophonist friend, Bryan Beninghove. The audience reacted with giddy enthusiasm to this musical treat. Soon, the duo expanded into a gypsy jazz band (called jazz manouche in French) known as "Manouche Bag," a clever play on words. Gustafsson meshes his pop expertise with the sounds of gypsy jazz guitarists (such as Django Reinhardt) and les chansons françaises (such as Charles Trenet) to create a unique musical genre. Joe Bussey on bass and Jim Kaznosky on guitar complete "Manouche Bag."
Night fell upon Downtown. Yellow light from the Parisian globe lanterns was cast upon the sidewalk. The Café was jumping. The guitar was quickly strummed and the bass rapidly plucked, as Gustafsson joyously sung in his très bonne voix. My chic Aunt Nancy dropped me off in front of the Café. My friends Ben, Ryan and Doug drove all the way from the suburbs to meet me.
We stood outside as Bryan, the likable saxophonist, strolled among the guests as he belted out his tunes. We chatted with Claude's eclectic clientele: Neighborhood locals, Francophiles and Vespa-riding professionals crowding the Café. The charming hostess and friendly waiter buzzed around us in what felt like a Felliniesque fête.
I took Gustafsson's suggestion and ordered the delectable appetizer: Chicken of the Woods Mushrooms, prepared in a light sauce of garlic, butter and parsley served on a crisp baguette. C'était délicieux! My composer friend Ben and I ordered the loin of pork, a succulent piece of meat served alongside creamy polenta and moist green beans. Ryan ordered the mussels in white wine sauce; he devoured them with gastronomique zeal. Doug enjoyed a dish of gratin dauphinois, or sliced layered potato with cheese and crème fraîche. Need I tell you? Délectable!
Madame Claude, unlike so many restaurants, offers an enticing selection of homemade desserts, their specialty, Crêpes. I ordered the heavenly La Normande, liberally filled with baked apples in a tasty caramel sauce. Doug ordered La Bronzée, which overflowed with chocolate sauce, topped with a dollop of ice cream. Ryan ordered le tarte tatin, an apple tarte served with vanilla ice cream. Ben lost himself in a piece of rich flourless chocolate cake. Under the stars and strung lights, we chatted and laughed. The wondrous sound of "Manouche Bag" floated out the door and into the night air.
I may be biased in favor of any restaurant in Downtown Jersey City since I consider the neighborhood my second home (my grandmother lived on Seventh Street, in the house where my mother spent her childhood), yet Madame Claude Café radiates with magic. While the food is delectable and the atmosphere quaint, it is the welcoming and charismatic host and hostess who provide the secret ingredient to Claude's charm. Jacques Tati would have been proud.
"Manouche Bag" performs live every Thursday evening from 8:00PM until late. The band is available for special events such as weddings. Channel your inner Parisian and contact Mattias Gustafsson for your entertainment pleasure.
No French meal is complete without a bottle of wine! Make sure to visit the Gustafsson's wine shop, Madame Claude Wine, on Pavonia Avenue at Hamilton Square.
Be on the lookout for Madame Claude's new sister restaurant, opening on Newark Avenue Spring 2014.