Profile: Belle’s Bakery

From the February 7, 2013 edition

Does this sound good: “fried rice with ham, chicken, mushrooms and ketchup, topped with gratin (chicken, white sauce and mozzarella cheese)”? Or how about “spaghetti mixed with cod fish roe, lemon juice and butter, topped with dried seaweed”? If you answered “yes” to both, then you might be a stoner. OK, even if you’re not, you’re still right — and possibly familiar with oddball Belle’s Bakery, one of the best cheapie lunch options in Columbus.

Sharing owners with long-beloved Japanese stalwart Akai Hana, think of consistently strong-performing Belle’s as a collision between La Chatelaine and Tensuke Market (Tensuke’s another Japanese-specializing sibling within Belle’s business family). See, Belle’s bakes its own batards, croissants and mille feuilles, but it also makes tsubushi an pan, uguisu an pan and tonkatsu pork.

Appearances can be deceiving at Belle’s, where relaxing folks sip organic coffees and teas. Its long and narrow, cases-filled-with-pastries, counter-ordering space — where cheery yellow walls (surrounding maybe a dozen tables) contain Francophile decorations — places it in the French bakery/cafe category. But check out its hundreds of bagged rolls for sale (with most priced under $2, crowds swarm upon them on weekends) and you’ll notice sweet bean paste, canned tuna, and green pea fillings — all which scream “Japanese!” As for the smallish menu’s made-to-order offerings, well, they touch down in several areas — every one quaint and inexpensive, and most soothing and delicious.

For instance, Belle’s turmeric-yellow Pumpkin Soup ($3) was a warming bowl of pure comfort. Its rich but not fatty flavor indicated its hearty body owed more to potatoes than dairy.

Served with a side (a fine salad with non-boring dressing choices, or indifferent but crisped-up, pre-bagged fries), Belle’s sandwiches — like the excellent Smoked Salmon ($6.25) — offer uncommon value. Stacked on a freshly baked, soft yet crispy and terrific roll (unconvincingly called “focaccia”), this sandwich featured that classic combo of smoky cured fish, tomato, red onion and cream cheese — all further flattered by fresh dill and avocado.

Tasting better than it sounds was the recommended Fried Pork Tenderloin Sandwich ($6.25). On a pillowy soft, toasted house roll were tender and juicy, crisply battered cutlet chunks dressed with cabbage, lettuce and a slathering of ketchup-y tonkatsu sauce.

From the equally wallet-friendly entrees (they’re accompanied by one of Belle’s fresh salads), I tried and liked the goulash-y Hashed Beef Rice ($7). Its fanciful plating — resembling a happy face with perfectly hard-cooked egg “eyes” (on rice) above a “smile” of tangy, sauteed onion and tomato-flavored, tender stew meat — anticipated my chewing expression.

Doria ($7) is the name of that diet-busting “fried rice with ham, etc.” entree I started this review with. It’s a crock of attractively blistered cheese above a bechamel-y sauce leaking onto rice (its primary ingredient) accented with bits of the goodies already described — and it’s a creamy and tangy, carb-and-fat-revelling guilty pleasure.

Much leaner is the refreshingly light, if sardine-intense Cod Fish Roe Spaghetti ($6.50). Garnished with nori, it seemed extremely Japanese until I began to think of Italian pastas I’ve enjoyed with bottarga. In any event, I liked it — especially with a couple extra lemon squirts.

From the alluring dessert case, the popular Strawberry Cake is the perfect confection for fans of light and airy sweets. For something more substantial — and more French — opt for that Mille Feuille.