Cafe Society

King of Tartes

Phil Collier, owner and executive chef of A La Tomate Cafe and Tarterie, is a nervous sort of fella. I can see him in the kitchen -- a big space for such a small place, full of tall bakery racks, new ovens, antique slicers with exposed motors, bright stainless steel snow-drifted with flour. One minute he's at the cold table, puttering like an old man in the garage, while his kitchen manager, Majel Kimbal (formerly of Aix), watches a half-dozen people standing by the front door with their necks craned as they try to decipher the big chalkboard menu hung high up on the wall. Then they switch positions: Collier with his head and hands in the bakery case, rearranging the oatmeal-raisin cookies, scones and crisp croissants (some of the best you'll find this side of the Left Bank) for maximum irresistibility, and Kimbal in the kitchen, poking at a batch of something stacked up on the rolling Queen Marys that crowd the prep table.

Then Collier is up again, surveying the small dining room and empty patio with squinting eyes -- concentrating like a man trying to suss out the board at the OTB or like a cat trying to do long division. When things are slow (and they sometimes are at A La Tomate, which has been open for ten months and is still fighting for every regular it can find), Collier will get out in front of his place with a sign and try to lure commuters. "As an artist, you open a place and expect the people to flood in," he explains. "Then sometimes you scratch your head when they don't. I just gotta do whatever I can to let people know we're here."

A La Tomate is here seven days a week, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It offers a Provençal-style happy hour, with buck-off beers, discounted wine and snacks -- fresh bread and herbed olive oil, spiced olives, a Mediterranean ploughman's plate of sliced meats, seasonal fruit, veggies, more bread -- and weekend brunches with breakfast tartes, croissants and scones, muffins and you-call-'em omelettes. Collier puts in about ninety hours a week at his cafe, and there are days when he still only clears three, maybe four hundred dollars on the register. He'll have a great breakfast, then no lunch crowd. Or a killer lunch but no dinner at all. He hasn't had too many days when all three turns were a bust, but he hasn't yet had a day where the kitchen rocked it through all three meals, either. So on a slow Tuesday or Sunday between hits, there he is, out on the sidewalk with his sign. There he is with his head in the bakery case. Collier carries a bit of extra weight around the tum-tum. "Quality control," he calls it.

The kitchen's croissants are pure murder -- buttery like you wouldn't believe, with crackly shells and insides like clouds. When this job finally, inevitably, kills me, A La Tomate's croissants (along with a thousand other good things to eat) will be listed under "Cause of Death." The coroner will have to attach extra pages to the autopsy report to include everything that put me down, but these croissants will be near the top, and I will have gone out with a big smile on my face and crumbs on my lapels. I eat them plain. I eat them with chocolate, with jelly (and sure, I'd like to see A La Tomate make its own jam, but jelly works in a pinch) or -- because I am into culinary extreme sports -- with even more butter that I have to ask for at the counter, a request always met with a look that says, "Well, they're your arteries...." I eat them with a latte and a good book, and when I show up for lunch -- or an early dinner that I call lunch because I missed breakfast and still have another dinner waiting -- I eat one while I wait for my tarte à la tomate or chausson.

"Best thing since sliced pizza," Collier says of A La Tomate's namesake tomato pie. And I don't know about that -- I think the best thing since sliced pizza is an unsliced pizza -- but I know that the tarte is good. If, in some Twilight Zone-esque twist, Italy and all things Italian were to suddenly disappear from the world, leaving yours truly as the sole surviving human to remember the joys of a thin-crust New Yorker or a high-wall Sicilian, I could get by on Collier's Provençal version. In time, I might even come to prefer it, but there would be a grieving process.

When I first tried the tarte, I hated it. The flavor was strangely dissonant, so unlike what I thought it would taste like that I was momentarily stunned. I racked my brain for what I knew about Collier. He was from Boston, had started his cooking career at thirteen -- scraping dough off the floor of a bakery -- then had cooked around Beantown and New York before giving it all up for the wild life of an electronics engineer for fifteen years, hating every minute of it, until he found himself back in the restaurant business again. So I thought, okay, this is what a pizza made by an engineer tastes like.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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