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French bakery Cafe des Amis in Sewickley expands menu

| Saturday, April 28, 2012

Changes are in the air for the French bakery Cafe des Amis in Sewickley, an authentic French bistro that opened two-and-a-half years ago.

On Tuesday, Gina Frantz, a Robinson resident, took over the reins of ownership from departing owner Eric Assandri. She has plans to add more breakfast items and to open earlier, at 6 a.m. starting Oct. 1.

"I think we need to find a niche, so we'll be adding a curbside pickup service from 6 to 9 a.m., where if you call ahead, your food will be ready for you when you arrive," says Frantz, 45, a 1981 graduate of Montour High School. "A sitting area will also be added. And the bare tables will be covered by tablecloths."

Lest anyone think that the restaurant is changing too much, Frantz reassures regulars that Assandri's original recipes will remain. Assandri, a native of Marseilles, France, opened the 50-seat bakery in January 2007 after moving to Pittsburgh with his family from Los Angeles.

"We're just improving what's already here," Frantz says. "We have the same menu, the same chef. ... There are just subtle changes in the works."

Cafe des Amis looks like a rustic French country inn, with long wooden tables, matching chairs, golden walls and chalkboard menus. Patrons line up at the counter to give their orders, and watch their food being prepared in the open kitchen behind the counter. A display case offers mouthwatering French items for sale -- quiche, croque monsieurs, sandwiches and ratatouille, a hearty vegetable stew.

Head chef Richard Kuhel makes sure all of the orders are prepared with the same kind of attention to detail the cafe has been known for. The famous French onion soup is still a best-seller. Breakfast is served all day.

Sandwiches are typical French fare and include salami and butter on a baguette; grilled eggplant, peppers, sundried tomatoes and goat cheese on a baguette; chicken dijonnaise on a baguette; and brie and pancetta on a baguette. Sweet and savory crepes are made to order. The kids' menu offers grilled cheese on a croissant or a hot dog in a puff pastry or on a baguette.

Kuhel, 37, did his apprenticeship at Nemacolin Woodlands and trained under Paul Haines while there for two years. He says he was ready for a change in his life when he saw a blurb on television about the apprenticeship program at Nemacolin Woodlands, which was partnered with Westmoreland County Community College for the culinary arts degree.

"I called the same day I saw it on TV," says Kuhel, who lives in Ambridge. "I was laid off from a construction job. I worked with Chef Bryant Smalley, too, and got rotated through all the kitchens in the resort."

The best part about being a chef, for Kuhel, is the satisfaction he receives from appreciative customers.

"Seeing the smile on someone's face when they enjoy what I've made is the best," Kuhel says. "The hardest part is putting in a lot of long hours, not just at the restaurant, but in keeping up with the reading. The more you know, the better off you are."

Frantz and her husband, Chip, owned a family bakery 15 years ago on the South Side, then she had two children and couldn't work like she used to. They sold the bakery after running it for seven years.

"I always had a dream to do it again," Frantz says. "This is much lower scale. Our kids are now going to college, so this is perfect for me. Now we have an empty nest."

Frantz found Cafe des Amis after driving through Sewickley one day.

"The food's outstanding -- that's what brought us here," she says. "This came along, and was the best fit for me. We are going to incorporate different foods and more pastries, but we're not changing the recipes."


The secret behind a good ratatouille is to cook the vegetables separately, according to Cafe des Amis chef Richard Kuhel. And be sure to add the tomatoes at the end of each cooking process so they don't overcook.

"We get a lot of people who buy this," he says. "It can be eaten warm or cold."

• 1 1/2 tablespoons Herbes de Provence, divided into thirds

• 1 1/2 tablespoons chopped garlic, divided into thirds

• 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh chopped basil, divided into thirds

• 1 small zucchini, medium diced

• 1 medium eggplant, medium diced

• 1 red pepper, medium diced

• 1 tomato, small diced

• 6 tablespoon olive oil

• Salt and pepper, to taste

You will cook each vegetable separately.

Place 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet over medium heat and start by cooking the red peppers first, adding 1/2 tablespoon of Herbes de Provence, 1/2 tablespoon chopped garlic and 1/2 tablespoon fresh basil (see Photo 1) .

Cook until the red peppers get soft, about 6 minutes. Add 1/3 of the diced tomatoes (see Photo 2) and heat through. Place in a bowl and set aside.

Add zucchini to the skillet and 1/2 tablespoon of each of the spices and cook for 5 minutes. Add 1/3 of the diced tomatoes. Place in another bowl and set aside.

Use 4 tablespoons of olive oil, or more, for the eggplant because the eggplant will soak up the oil. Add the eggplant and remaining spice and cook for 5 minutes, then add the remainder of the diced tomatoes.

Mix all the cooked vegetables together (see Photo 3) , season with salt and pepper and incorporate thoroughly.

Serve with rustic French bread.

Additional Information:

Cafe des Amis

Cuisine : French

Hours : 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 9 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Sundays. As of Oct. 1, the new hours will be: 6 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. New Sunday hours have not yet been determined.

Entree price range : $7.95-$13

Notes : Complimentary Wi-Fi available. Major credit cards accepted. Handicapped accessible. BYOB with no corkage fee. Curb-side service available starting Oct. 1.

Address : 443 Division St., Sewickley

Details : 412-741-2388 or Web site

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