Pinwheel cafe in Torrance

Pinwheel is a casual breakfast and lunch café in the always busy Rolling Hills Plaza, with outdoor dining and a lot of freshly baked pastries. (Photo by Merrill Shindler)

In the midst of a leisurely weekend brunch, I found myself in a reverie, thinking about how different this deeply casual “French café/bakery” is from the French restaurants I grew up with.

They were intimidating experiences, formal (even when they weren’t), white tablecloth sorts of places, with servers in French waiter costumes (tuxedoes on the high end, black vests with long aprons on the bistro level), too much cutlery, and menus of dishes heavy with cream and butter, dense sauces and overcooked vegetables. Boeuf bourguignonne was a favorite, simply because I knew what it was. Quenelles, not so much.

By contrast, Pinwheel is the sort of happy shop you might find in the loose, often outré Marais District of Paris. It's a good place to wake up in, perfect for the morning after, where the espresso is properly strong, and served in cups large enough to wake you from whatever stupor lingers.

And the dishes here are easy to choose from, light on the stomach, offering no stress for the “foie,” as a French druggist once referred to my stomach distress. I pointed to my stomach, miming pain. He assumed it was my liver, and gave me whatever the French take for a bad liver. It worked, whatever it was.

The meals at Pinwheel, which count pretty much as brunch every day, work very well too.

There’s seating inside and out, with lots of traffic heading for the Trader Joe’s next door. The menu is filled with dishes from back-in-the-day, though curiously, none feel out of date.

I loved salad Nicoise back then, and I love it now — for me, it’s a perfect salad, a busy toss of fresh, crispy greens, with tuna, a hard-cooked egg, tomatoes, green beans, potatoes, capers, scallions, olives and anchovies. Unlike a lot of salads, I never get bored part way through; there’s always an interesting bite coming up next.

It’s not the only happy salad on the menu.

There’s plenty of goodness to be found in the arugula and chevre salad, the Papa Poule (with chicken), the Pinwheel and the too healthy for words Sunny Salad.

But should you want to go deeper Gallic, there are good directions to head as well, and many of them. The omelette Provençale reminds me of my early love of ratatouille, a stewed veggie mix that I thought, from first bite, was one of the best things I’d ever eaten.

The omelettes are heavy with cheese, as French omelettes tend to be, making them a substantial feed; I especially liked the Oh La La omelettes, made with truffle flavored goat cheese, honey and arugula, an omelette that’s somewhere between breakfast and dessert. And since you can get a salad on the side (along with a soup, fruit or “potato waffles”), you an keep the indulgence under control. Or not.

Without too much stress, you can put together a meal that’s properly French.

There‘s a French onion soup, with a big cheesy top, so much fun to play with and eat. There’s a croque monsieur, a croque madame, and a royal croque — sandwiches with as much going on as the salads, including an old school béchamel sauce. There are escargot in butter, garlic and parsley — a dish that I do love, largely because of the garlic butter, which would make my napkin taste pretty good. I think snails are there more for texture. And to keep them off the hedges, of course.

Sandwiches are a big part of the menu, dominant even, served in five forms — tartines, croissants, baguettines, paninis and Frenchies, built around classic baguettes. Each of them is defined, more of less, by their bread. This is a bakery after all — you’d expect some very fine bread, crisp and chewy — and at Pinwheel, you’ll get it.

You also should get, to take with you, some of the tasty pastries baked here. They range from many breads (pains), into a happy world of sweet things, with classic French names like madeleine and palmier, meringue and chouquette, financier and macaron.

There’s a fine Danish as well. And a bread pudding that may contain all the calories you need in a day. This is not a bad thing. It may even save you from buying too much at TJ, where the temptations are relentless.

Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Send him email at mreats@aol.com.

Pinweel French Café Bakery is located in Rolling Hills Plaza, 2553 Pacific Coast Hwy., Torrance

For more information, call 310-325-5055 or visit www.pinwheelcafebakery.com.

Contact Lisa Jacobs lisa.jacobs@TBRnews.com or follow her on Twitter @lisaannjacobs.

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