Chez Alice Gourmet Cafe sits on one of the most popular commercial spots in Princeton, surrounded by similar businesses, quietly boasting an assumed refinement and prestige, often with a price tag to match. However, I found Chez Alice, despite its bourgeois sounding name, to be not only approachable but comfortable.
With a ridiculous amount of change at the ready, I parked my car on Palmer Square, fed the meter the cost of a happy meal and looked around for those wiley parking cops who just love to lay in wait for unsuspecting commerce-supporting patrons like me. I walked inside and was immediately met with the sound of spirited chatter from two Princeton University professors jabbering on about sociology, orthodoxy and real estate in Europe. I could see the display case to the front left, so to it, I went.
Vivian, a quiet dark-eyed woman with a smile reminiscent of the Mona Lisa, waited momentarily before asking me what she could get for me. It was obvious that I was a bit overwhelmed with the selection, but she patiently explained each one of the cakes to me. From truffon to opera cake, she dissected each one, even repeating some as I tried to grasp the array of ingredients and combinations. This experience would truly be something unique as, thus far, I had not come across cakes like this on the tour. In contrast to the cupcakes I’d become accustomed to trying, today I was going to indulge in actual cake slices so immediately I set about the task of choosing and, from what I saw, it looked like that would be quite difficult.
While choosing my cakes slices, I noticed that all of them were constructed similarly: a layer of cake, then a mousse and then another layer of cake, a layer of mousse, a layer cake and then a final layer of mousse tops the cake with an artistic flourish. Red velvet, pink passion, truffon and casis. They all looked different from what I usually see and, since these were the first slices I would be trying on this quest, I was excited.
Going for something familiar first, I tried the red velvet. It was moist… really, really moist and, where I was used to having the familiar cream cheese icing, there was a very delicately flavored mousse that I later found out was actually cream cheese. To be honest, it took me a moment as I tried to reconcile my expectations with this new experience. Now, the truffon was really something… a very dark rum something. The chocolatey familiarity might be ascribed to the rum, which you can relish in both the cake layers and the mousse. And relish I did. Rum, like bacon, tends to make all things better, even when they already have a good start. Casis was a vanilla and chocolate cake with chocolate and black currant mousse throughout, a confection that was tangy with a distinctive flavor that was not overpowered by the chocolate.
As I was savoring the casis, the owner, Matt Banihani, came over to me smiling broadly. An affable man, he beamed proudly like a father enamored with the deeds of his offspring.
“We make everything here,” Banihani explained. “All the cakes, the croissants, the muffins, scones, the quiches, everything… except the bagels.”
As with many of the restaurants on Palmer Square, the magic happens downstairs in the basement kitchen. He has two dedicated pastry chefs who “do nothing but bake all day,” I was informed. Now, you all know how much I like to talk to the chef myself and get a feel for them, much in the same way a painting takes on a whole new meaning once you’ve met the painter. That was not happening on this excursion.
“I come from a finance background and bought the business in 2007. I let the chefs do what they have always done,” Banihani says smiling. “They’ve been here since 1994 and they were the ones who taught me the business.”
After pointing out that I had picked one of his favorite cakes to taste, the truffon, I was quickly enrolled in an impromptu french pastry class. “The cakes we make are called ‘gateau.’” After I patted myself on the back for spelling it correctly (ahh the French and all those extra letters), I quickly went to google to look it up: “gateau – a rich cake, typically one containing layers of cream or fruit.” Although I have had cakes like this in my long past at various events and gatherings, like most of us, my cake experience tended to be a bit more narrow than I would like. This reintroduction would remind me that there is a diversity in cakes, as in most things, that begs to be indulged and branching out can yield some very satiating experiences.
With an extensive list of cakes in the French gateau tradition, Chez Alice has graced many a wedding, graduation, anniversary, university event and so on, but what Banihani really prides himself on is the ambiance that exists at Chez Alice. “We’re a little Starbucks (espresso and such), a little Panera (sandwiches, soup and the like), a little corner deli (orders explode around lunch), and a lot gourmet French patisserie (a master pastry chef and everything else).” Banihani also takes great pride in knowing his customers and most of them by first name. “We have a great response from the Princeton community and beyond. [We have] many loyal patrons, and a good number of them come by daily,” he shared. It’s these relationships that help keep this little slice of Europe in America full and prosperous. With a customer base that extends from New York City to Philadelphia, and everything made from scratch on the premises (except the bagels), the folks at Chez Alice are very, very, busy and very grateful.
I took a brief moment to indulge in my last piece of cake, the pink passion. This was probably the most interesting of them all, although no rum here. I can hear the voice of a neighbor, Eva Tramontana, salivating and warning me how sorry I would be if I didn’t try this cake. She was right, drool and all, she was right. The vanilla cake with raspberry mousse and passion fruit mousse was not only aesthetically pleasing, but really gave my tastebuds a luscious, tropical vacation. The cake transported me to chaise lounge underneath a colorful beach umbrella that leans to the side on a white sand beach in the Seychelles. As a sudden downpour subsided and the afternoon sun slowly reappeared, my thoughts went back to the parking meter. Thankfully, no ticket as the meter ticked “expired.” I said goodbye to the Chez Alice folks, grabbed my parting mini bacon cheddar quiche (he had me at “bacon”) and made my way homeward.
If you would like a slice of a French patisserie, without the baggage check or the flight delay, go visit Rene, Vivian and Matt at Chez Alice in Princeton. Educate your taste buds, expand your palate, hit up Google and empty your piggy bank to fed those meters. Gateau. Patisserie. Everything from scratch (except the bagels). There will be a quiz. Chez Alice Gourmet Cafe & Bakery, 5 Palmer Square West, Princeton NJ 08542. Go check them out at www.chezalicecafe.com and on Facebook. Yum it up. Tell all your friends.