Le Saint Amour

In case you haven’t noticed, I love French food- real authentic hearty French food that sings to my heart, purrs in my belly and misshapens my thighs.  Especially after returning from a wonderful trip to France a few months ago, I’ve been daydreaming about re-living, even if but for a fleeting moment, that experience of being in a real French bistro.  I love the bustle of a bistro, the long banquettes and crowded tables, the carafes of wine that go with my escargots and foie gras paté, the old school waiters who aren’t afraid to tell you what to order, the gentlemen drinking their Cognac and the madames enjoying their cafe on the patio as they readjust their stylish scarves to keep their neck warm from the cold Parisian chill.  And I recently had such an experience in the heart of Culver City at Le Saint Amour.

Owners Florence and Bruno Herve-Commereuc closed their downtown restaurant, Angelique Café, and reopened in Culver City a few months ago.  The concept of serving homemade French charcuterie (made by Bruno himself) and authentic French fare is still unchanged, although the space is magnificently upgraded.  This magical brasserie has the power to transport you to Paris in an instant.  Am I in Saint-Germain-des-Prés on Rue St. Andrés des Arts?  Or is this in the Marais close to Place des Vosges?  The tall ceilings, tiled floors, long red banquette against the wall, large distressed mirrors on the wall that make the dining room seem larger, small tables narrowly spaced next to one another, specials of the day written in white chalk on the board, large front windows facing the sidewalk framed on the bottom by white lace panels, French waiters scurrying to and from the open kitchen carrying carafes of tap water and plates of mussels…..ah yes, I am in Paris.  The atmosphere is so authentic, that more than half of the customers were also French.  The owner of The Little Door was a few tables down from me, appearing to be very much at home.

I’ve never had a bad experience in Paris, although the city has a bad reputation of having rude waiters.  For those of you who have this opinion or prejudice, rest assured that Le Saint Amour is quite the opposite.  Florence was a most generous and gracious hostess, all of the waiters were attentive and warm, and nobody made me feel rushed.  Everybody was relaxed and happy to be working there.

Thursday night is the best night to go, when oyster sommelier or maitre écailler Christophe Happillon is there with his oyster cart in front of the open kitchen with a big friendly smile on his face.  He gently shucks each oyster himself and shares his vast knowledge with all of the customers.  I’ve never met anybody more passionate about oysters than Christophe.  As he lovingly and tenderly held each oyster in his hands, he told us about how the quality of the seaweed bed and water temperature affected the flavors of the bivalves;  how they originated in one ocean but are now farmed in another, altering the brininess and finish of the oysters; why certain shells are round versus flat and why some are blond versus gray.

The Carlsbad Lunas with the round and blond shells left an acidic kick in the back of my mouth, and had a stronger aftertaste that was complemented by the shallot vinaigrette.  The Endless Summer oysters from Baja California had a light cucumber finish.  The Fanny Bays, my favorite, had a creamy and rich texture with a light lemongrass finish.  All were perfectly shucked and presented.

When Bruno took our order, he gave us a slight frown.  “You’re not getting the boudin noir?  You have to try it, I made it myself.  Let me bring you some!” 15 minutes later he emerged from the kitchen with a plate of boudin noir, a proud smile on his face.  As he set it down on our table, he also pulled up a chair and watched as I took my first bite and gave him my best genuine O-face.  Ahh, exquisite.  This blood sausage was rich in flavor, bursting with complexity, yet light in texture.  The apple compote was a perfect complement to the dense iron-rich sausage.  This was one of the best boudin noirs that I’ve ever had.

The ris de veau veal sweetbreads with frisée was a bit on the dry side, but nicely prepared with a slightly crispy crust and perfect with the acidity of the capers.

The escargots with garlic and parsley butter were just like what I would expect at a Parisian bistro- succulent, juicy and buttery.  These little succulent treasures were simply divine.

The pied de cochon farci, boneless pig’s feet with tartar sauce, was outstanding.  It came out as a small square object, and as I cut through this pig’s skin pillow, cochon heaven came gushing out like a burst pipe.  I could see tender bits of pig skin, collagen, meat, mushrooms and flavorful jus just begging to be slurped up.  This went beautifully with the tartar sauce and the bitter watercress salad.   A truly amazing dish from start to finish.

The terrine de foie gras de canard ‘maison’, house made duck liver terrine, was out of this world.  It rivals some of the best that I’ve ever had in Burgundy.

En fin, we had the entrecote au poivre, the grilled rib eye steak with pepper sauce and fries.  This perfectly medium-rare grilled steak was amazingly tender and flavorful.  It was refreshing to get a steak grilled just the way I ordered it- it’s actually hard to come by these days.  Grilling meat correctly seems to be a lost art.  The foie gras, boudin noir and steak all went beautifully with a bottle of 2006 Savigny-les-Beaune ‘Les Gollardes’ from Jacques Girardin.

Even the dessert was to die for.  The baba au rhum left me speechless.  It tasted exactly like what I envisioned the most perfect baba au rhum to taste like.  Moist and sweet with a hint of rum, with tender candied fruits that were soft and subtle in flavor.  I couldn’t even get good baba au rhum in France, but here I was in a little heavenly bubble in the middle of Culver City, eating French bistro food that rivaled some of my most memorable meals in authentic Parisian bistros.

I could go on and on, as I cannot contain my excitement for Le Saint Amour.  It’s true French bistro food in a true French bistro environment with French staff and true French hospitality.  Le Saint Amour hasn’t seen the last of me.  This place is exceptional and quite simply, c’est magnifique!

Le Saint Amour

9725 Culver Blvd
Culver City, CA 90232
(310) 842-8155

Updates: Maître ecailler Christophe Happillon is now serving his oysters at Church & State Bistro on Tuesday nights and Joe’s in Venice on Friday nights.

Random trivia: Did you know that boudin noir is made from fresh pig’s blood?  When it’s made in the traditional fashion, it takes several people to perform this task.  When bleeding the pig, one of the forelegs has to be constantly moved around to avoid clots from forming in the blood vessels and thus facilitating drainage.

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Bistro Paul Bert- Paris

Bistro Paul Bert

Bistro Paul Bert

For the ultimate Parisian bistro experience with classic French cooking, Le Bistro Paul Bert in the 11th arrondissement, not far from Bastille, is the perfect location.  Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood, this bistro is small, quaint and unpretentious.  Bustling with locals and a few scant tourists (that’s us!), I could tell that this was a place of warmth and comfort from the soft yellow glow of lights and the sounds of laughter and clinking wine glasses emanating from the small storefront as I approached it on the dark street.

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Chalkboard menu

The menu is written on a medium-sized chalkboard that is passed around from table to table.  The formule menu for 34 Euros includes an appetizer, entrée and dessert.  Even though it was still only 8:30pm on a Wednesday night, the place was packed and they had already run out of many entrées.  My poor friends were crushed when our waitress initially told them that she would save the last langoustine plate for them, only to return a few minutes later crossing her arms in a big X with the dreaded “c’est fini!”

IMG_5482Asperges blanches au parmesan de vache rouge: White asparagus with parmesan cheese.  A very simple dish of steamed white asparagus with salt, pepper, olive oil and shaved parmesan cheese.  Mild and delicate in taste, the white asparagus was meaty and thick.  Since it was the tail end of asparagus season, I could sense a hint of bitter finish in the vegetable, in contrast to the succulent sweetness of those I had during the peak season.  Still, I was happy to be able to enjoy a plateful of these giant stalks- it’s hard to find them in the US.

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Assiette de jambon blanc iberico et sa salade: as simple as you can get.  Slices of delicious Iberico ham with a simple baby greens viniagrette salad.  At this bistro, it’s all about simplicity and good quality.

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Petit anchois frais en tempura: deep fried tempura-style anchovies.  That’s all there is to it, just plain simple battered and fried anchovies with lemon, but oh it was incredibly good.  The fish were so fresh, it made me wonder if they were still alive when they were dropped into the pot of bubbling oil.  Crisp and light, yet moist, tender and succulent on the inside, this was my favorite appetizer of the evening.

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They gave us these purée maison mashed potatoes to accompany our entrées, and I couldn’t get over how adorable the small cast iron pot was. Very functional too, as it kept the potatoes warm throughout our meal.

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Ris de veau, poêlée de rattes et carottes du jardin: Pan fried veal sweetbreads with garden fresh ratte potatoes and carrots.  These sweetbreads were large, moist, rich and luscious.  I’m used to having sweetbread dishes where there are several small segmented pieces of sweetbread that break apart easily, but this dish presented 1 large grand piece of succulent heaven that stood up to the earthy intensity of the morel mushrooms.

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Dos de cabillaud rôti à la crème de morilles: roasted cod loin fillet with morel mushroom cream sauce.  The cod was incredibly moist and flavorful, bold enough to complement the beautiful morel mushroom sauce.  Morels were in high season at this time, and it was such a joy to see it incorporated in so many dishes.  I love the intense woodsy aroma and soft juicy consistency of fresh morels; it’s nothing like the dried counterparts.  A wonderful pairing with the bottle of B. Couralt “Les Tabeneaux” red wine that we ordered.

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Tête de veau, sauce gribiche et sa cervelle: calf’s head with its brains, served with gribiche sauce which is a mayonnaise based sauce with hard boiled eggs, capers, cornichons, Dijon mustard, parsley and chives.  This is hearty classic French bistro cooking at its absolute best.  It’s the meat and skin around a calf’s head, carefully taken off the skull, wrapped around the tongue and prepared in a bouillon for hours until the gelatinous skin starts to melt and soften.  In the photo you can see the thick slice of tongue in the foreground, and sautéed brains to the right.  Every bite of which ever meat I ate, simply melted in my mouth.  The thick outer layer of the face meat was collagenous heaven that dissolved effortlessly on my tongue into a warm enveloping sensation of full-bodied finesse.  The tart and acidic gribiche sauce was the perfect complement to such an intensely robust and nourishing meal.  Because of the sauce, I was able to finish the plate- otherwise, it may have been too heavy even for an organ meat lover like myself.  This was one of my favorite dishes on this Europe trip.

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Ile flottante aux pralines roses: Floating island dessert with pink pralines.  Ile flottante is a light meringue on top of a crème anglaise custard sauce.  I wasn’t too crazy about this dessert, but then again I am not the fairest judge of this dish, as I don’t like nuts, meringue or pralines.  Also, I was still ‘floating’ in tête de veau heaven.  But I do remember the crème anglaise being quite flavorful.

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Soufflé au chocolat et au basilic: Chocolate and basil soufflé.  I enjoyed this dish, but my friends reported that the basil kick was a bit too much for them.  The consistency of the soufflé was perfect- warm, fresh out of the oven, airy and light.

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Baba au rhum façon savarin: Rum cake made in a Savarin mold.  The Savarin yeast cake is made in a ring mold with a rounded contour, making it look like a large donut.  It’s named after Brillat-Savarin, a famous 18th century gastronome and epicure. Since the dessert came with a bottle of white rum, it made us think that the cake had hardly any rum in it.  We were all expecting a nice moist cake with a hint of rum finish, and dove in with our large spoons.  Within seconds we were coughing, hacking and hyperventilating from the harsh alcohol.  This was not a cake with a hint of rum.  This was a plate of rum with a hint of cake.  Blech.  We watched in awe as a gentleman in his late 60’s sitting at the table next to us generously poured several ounces of extra rum from the bottle onto his baba, and finished the whole plate with not so much as an expression on his face.

Although the desserts flopped, everything else satisfied all of my senses.  If you have a bigger party or a bigger appetite, try the côte de boeuf for two (it looked like it was for four), a huge seared steak with frites which is their specialty.  I had a wonderful and happy experience at this neighborhood bistro, where the atmosphere, people and food were all loving and heartfelt.  I remember looking around and seeing everybody laughing and smiling, enjoying life and living in the moment.  This was classic, hearty bistro cooking done right with the best ingredients to nourish the stomach and soul.

Le Bistro Paul Bert-  18, rue Paul Bert, Paris  France

331-4372-2401

Random trivia: White asparagus is made by ‘etiolation’, which is the deprivation of light.  The stalks are kept away from the light by being buried in soil, so that chlorophyll (which gives the green pigment) cannot be produced.