Bastille Day honors one of the most critical events of the French Revolution, but July 14 in New York means plenty of opportunity to nibble on cheese and macarons along 60th Street — if you can penetrate the crowds at the celebratory annual street fair. Those who want to reflect on Robespierre in peace would do well to head to Queens instead. Although French cuisine is often associated with Manhattan’s priciest eateries, there’s a surprising number of solid spots on the other side of the East River, where you can have your steak frites without cringing when the check arrives.
Café Henri (1010 50th Avenue, Queens; 718-383-9315)
The sister restaurant to the Michelin-starred Casa Enrique, Café Henri covers the classics in a coffee-shop-sized space. Situated right beside the Vernon-Jackson stop in LIC, the bistro provides easy access to dishes like moules-frites cooked with plenty of white wine, shallots, and herbs. On a recent visit, a buckwheat crepe filled with smoked salmon and basil cream also included summer squash, cooked just enough to maintain a pleasant al dente bite. More elaborate dishes, like a coq au vin, bring the requisite tenderness and richness, along with a garlicky pillow of mashed potatoes, at outer-borough prices. You won’t have to pay more than $8 for a generous glass of wine, and sweets are made from high-quality ingredients, like chocolate Henri with steamed Valrhona cocoa.
Tournesol (50-12 Vernon Boulevard, Queens; 718-472-4355)
Across the street from Café Henri, Tournesol offers similarly reasonable prices for mussels, quiche, and escargot, albeit in a much larger space. It also flirts with fusion, as in skate all’arrabbiata and a lunchtime panini made with prosciutto. The restaurant is well established, an LIC fixture since before the luxury condo towers went up, as well as hands-on — the foie gras and other pâtés are homemade.
Café Triskell (33-04 36th Avenue, Queens; 718-472-0612)
This charming Astoria spot focuses on the cuisine of Brittany, which is known for its rustic cooking techniques. Buckwheat crepes are central to the food of the region, and are featured prominently here in a number of variations. The tiny café also boasts a French onion soup that’s been deemed the best in the city; the baked gruyère that gives way to a sweet-savory broth is worth a try even in the dead of summer. Its brunch-time brioche french toast rightfully earns raves, as do the delicate dessert crepes, like a poached pear that proves how satisfying simplicity can be.
Cannelle Patisserie (5-59 31st Avenue, Queens; 718-565-6200)
A stellar French bakery might not be what you’d expect to find in a Jackson Heights shopping center situated at a distance from the subway, but Queens often defies expectations. Both pastry chefs at Cannelle Patisserie are veterans of that pinnacle of poshness, the Waldorf-Astoria, and the goodies, ranging from croissants to cream puffs to chocolate mousse cake, are uniformly excellent. There are nods to the ethnic groups of the neighborhood, too, like rugelach and guava-cheese danish; there are also made-to-order cakes that could double as works of sculptural art. Another Cannelle opened last year in Long Island City, focusing on more seasonal goodies; we hear the lines get long but move quickly.
La Baraka (25509 Northern Boulevard, Queens; 718-428-1461)
You’ll need a car or the LIRR to get here, but La Baraka is a great choice for those who want something beyond strictly old-school French fare. There are standbys like trout amandine and boeuf bourguignon, but also specialties from France by way of North Africa, like couscous with merguez sausage made from Tunisian lamb, and chicken kebabs served with a green peppercorn sauce. The unfailingly warm service and lunch buffet deal draw plenty of regulars from Queens and Long Island.