Until recently, the greater Seattle area had been running a little lean when it came to French restaurants. There were the much-appreciated, time-honored staples — Café Campagne, Le Pichet, Café Presse, Boat Street Kitchen, Bastille – but after a few of those shuttered (both landmark Frenchies Le Gourmand and Rover’s closed in 2012), it was starting to look a tad dismal for Seattle-based Francophiles. Fortunately, the last few years have brought creamy, buttery goodness back to the Emerald City, with some new(er) kids on the block like Bateau, L’Oursin, Le Caviste and Loulay, now plumping up a healthy helping of gourmand French sustenance.
Seeing a need east of Lake Washington, Julien Hervet sought to bring a bit of this French experience to Bellevue, Washington. He partnered with Chef Patrick Morin and his La Parisienne French Bakery in Seattle to open Cépaé, a hybrid bakery-wine shop in Bellevue’s Soma Towers — currently the bad side of Expedia, a future Amazon residence and conveniently adjacent to the construction for a new Vulcan campus.
AN EXPRESSION OF LAND
“It’s a little bit of a bet to open in Bellevue over Seattle but, in many ways, it was a good way to do something different and not be in the middle of everything there,” Hervet says on his location choice. “Here, we went for the look and feel we want moving forward for the brand, it’s a proof of concept.”
The concept he’s referring to is a unique one — a traditional French bakery and coffee shop during the day that “morphs into a European wine bar” in the evening, he says.
A French native, Hervet started in the wine business as an enthusiast, a then-Microsoft director looking for a way to support his beloved hobby of wine. He first launched Cépaé as an importer/distributor, building relationships with French winemakers and bringing their wines over to Seattle, many on American soil for the first time.
Cépaé the bar and shop — a neologism of the French words “cep,” roughly translating to “vine base,” and “cépage,” wine grape variety — is a showcase of these wines, where more than 120 offerings are available by the taste, glass and bottle, and to take home. By the glass, wines stay fresh through a state-of-the-art preservation system that keeps bottles fresh for up to three weeks. The wine list is organized by grape and, on the opposing side of the tri-folded menu, by region, stressing Hervet’s belief that there is more to understanding wine than just recognizing the varietal.
“The grape is one component but not the only component,” he says, explaining how someone might think they like Chardonnay but when faced with tasting several from different regions, they might not feel the same across the board. “The terrior of the region is key, the winemaker is important… It’s not that your palate is bad when you don’t care for one; it’s that the wine is different from different areas of the world.”
FINDING THE RIGHT FIT
Focused on expressing the variations in wine from the many colorful regions of France, Cépaé provides guests with every opportunity to find the wine they like, even if it is just the wine at that moment or with a bite from the bakery.
“When people come here we want them to feel like they can have an experience that is built around their tastes,” Hervet says. “If you want us to start pairing wines with your cheese, side by side differences, we are here for that.”
Maybe that’s a cave-aged blue cheese with a 10-year-aged Sauternes, a red Côte de Beaune with truffle-laced goat cheese or a simple comté with a just-oily-enough old-vine Chenin Blanc from Hervet’s home of the Loire Valley. Or maybe it isn’t cheese at all — options also include a moelleux au chocolat (a dense, petite chocolate cake), éclairs, croissants, paris brest and meringues.
Though majority of the baked goods are made fresh daily at the Seattle bakery, in Bellevue Chef Orphee Fouano orchestrates all of the airy gougères, the delightful focaccia, fresh salads and daily tartine selections like one served the other week with cured salmon, radish, cucumber, edible flowers and fresh salmon roe atop his focaccia.
For Hervet and Cépaé’s expansive by-the-glass selection, he hopes his customers can experiment, learn and return for more. He’s helping to do so by offering educational courses on featured regions and classic wines (most being French), with entry-level tasting classes taught by a rotating sommelier soon to be offered for only $15.
“Buying wine is very intimidating – people are guided by the price or by the label,” Hervet says. “Why would you spend money in wine without being able to taste that? We want to give them that option; that opens a bit opportunity for people to taste and discover.”