Ron Suzuki and Marie-Mathilde Laplanche have a vision of what a French bistro should be, and they have brought it to life this year at Eclair Café in Pennington and Princeton.
The couple opened the Pennington location on Main Street in March. They followed that up by opening the Princeton shop last month on Witherspoon Street.
In each place the clean, creamy walls and uncomplicated tables and chairs set the mood. Chalkboards on the walls reveal food and drink menus in a stylish looping script.
Suzuki is known to many in the community as Dr. Suzuki. The physician has a successful family medical practice, Suzuki Medical Associates, with offices in Plainsboro and Pennington.
But he has a passion for cooking and baking that takes him somewhere medicine could not go. In January 2016, when he learned that The Grind Coffee House and Café in Plainsboro was set to close, he bought it to keep it open.
It’s a passion he shares with Marie-Mathilde, a native of Brittany in France, whom he describes not only as his co-owner, but also co-head chef.
“I think we both are the head chef,” he says. “We are a team. We invent a menu together, we work together. We both are capable of making all the products we make.”
In addition to his medical degrees, Suzuki has trained in French pastry and French culinary technique at the International Culinary Center in New York. He had worked as a pastry chef in professional kitchens in New York, but not until taking over at The Grind did he get a taste of restaurant management.
And it wasn’t exactly easy. The Grind remains a going concern, but Suzuki says Plainsboro customers have never really responded to the French-style menu items he and Laplanche have whipped up.
So they decided to open a second location with a different name, and do it in the town where they live.
“The first day we were open in Pennington, I think we already did better than we did in Plainsboro,” he says. “Learning how to run a store is a matter of catering to the needs of the community. I think that we decided to look for alternate locations because we find that our vision, our type of restaurant is more suited to Pennington or Princeton than Plainsboro.”
Co-managing multiple restaurants and multiple doctor’s offices appears to be a challenge that Suzuki is ready to meet.
“I’m running around the clock, there’s no doubt about it, but it’s something I really enjoy doing,” Suzuki says. “There’s something about seeing a smiling face enjoying a meal. It’s the same as treating a patient.”
The Eclair Cafés have virtually identical menus that feature a variety of eclairs (naturally), as well as a changing selection of quiches, croissants and other French pastries. Breakfast sandwiches are served morning and noon. In the warmer months, lunch customers can also look forward to seasonal plats and salades du jour. When possible, ingredients are locally sourced.
“We are super content to stay true to our vision of a French café,” Suzuki says. “No, we are not going to make it more sweet. No, we are not going to make bigger portions. We are not making American French.”
On the drink side, there are all the coffee and espresso drinks one would expect to find in a modern coffee shop, including cold brew, plus chai, cold-pressed juice, and Dammann tea. Both Eclair Cafés, as well as The Grind, serve Illy coffee, an Italian coffee brand well known in Europe.
“Marie-Mathilde and I are really happy since the store in Pennington has opened. We have such a good relationship with all our customers, and we truly enjoy that,” he says. “Hopefully Princeton will gro w the way it has here.”
Suzuki says that the Princeton location has done as well as he expected in its opening weeks. With competition like Small World Coffee up one block and Terra Momo Bread Company down the next, Princeton is a crowded market. But he professes to be undaunted.
“If you look in New York City, every block has a coffee shop. It’s a matter of taste,” he says.
Suzuki keeps things in perspective, saying he and Laplanche haven’t set out to create the next Starbucks. “We don’t expect a large volume in the store. We expected regular customers, which we have accomplished,” he says. “We did the right thing, we stayed true to our product and we hoped we would find someone who would enjoy it. And that has happened.”
In terms of what’s next for Eclair Café, Suzuki says now is the time to ensure that things are running smoothly in Pennington and Princeton before looking ahead. But he says people have already asked if he would consider expanding to places like New Hope, Pennsylvania. “First let Pennington and Princeton stabilize and then we will see,” he says.
Eclair Café, 20 N. Main St. in Pennington. Open Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Eclair Café, 41 Witherspoon St., Princeton. Open Monday through Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.