Bouchon- Los Angeles

Welcome to Bouchon, the most anticipated restaurant opening in Los Angeles this past year.  Los Angeles is fast becoming the dining capital of the US, and the best chefs in the world have all got their eyes on this City of Angels.  Wolfgang Puck got his start here and José Andrés descended upon our land with mucha energía; Robuchon got rejected but Rick Bayless came through.  When Thomas Keller came up to bat, we all welcomed him with open arms with the grand opening of Bouchon in the heart of Beverly Hills.

As always, I waited a few months to check out the new restaurant, as it takes a while for restaurants to work out their kinks and find their rhythm.  Many of my chef friends have always advised me on this golden rule of a minimum 3 months wait before dining at a new restaurant.  I almost broke the rule with Bouchon, as this wasn’t Keller’s first restaurant, or even his first Bouchon, but the perfect opportunity came this past spring when I found myself at this beautiful and majestic venue with 4 handsome French men in the food and beverage industry.  A chef, a sommelier, a mixologist and a vodka rep, wining and dining me at this lovely bistro that might as well be in the 1er arrondissement overlooking the Jardin de Tuileries.

Bouchon Beverly Hills follows a similar menu to its other restaurants in Yountville and Las Vegas.  Hearty and classic French bistro fare abound on the trademark printed paper menu that comes neatly folded around each napkin, like steak frites, croque madame, soupe à l’oignon and confit de canard.  A raw bar offers freshly shucked oysters, mussels, shrimp, clams, crab and lobster.  Domestic and French cheeses can be had individually or as a tasting plate.  The dessert menu has classic French sweets like profiteroles, pot de crème, mousse au chocolat noir and ile flottante.  Charcuteries and patés made by chef de cuisine Rory Herrmann are there for your ultimate pleasure, bien sur.  So what sets this French bistro apart from the others that have been feeding LA residents with good old comfort food?  Other than the Keller name, it’s the distinctly un-bistro price tag (for $135, you can indulge in a 50 gram sampling of Californian caviar and your croque madame will set you back $17.95) and the astonishing interior of this grand establishment.

There’s a casual café downstairs called Bar Bouchon which is perfect for al fresco terrace dining by the beautiful green park with water fountains, but Bouchon’s allure and beauty rests upstairs in the fine dining area designed by Adam Tihany.  Tile mosaics lay the groundwork of the grand hall where hand-painted murals decorate the walls and classic globe sconces cast soft illumination on the crowded tables.   Stunning high ceilings barely contain the lively sounds of clinking wine glasses, silverware on plates and engaging conversation.  With French speaking dining companions at my table, I sometimes had to remind myself that I wasn’t in Paris, and that it wasn’t a lovely Parisian dream.

What better way to celebrate a bistro dinner than with a terrine de foie gras de canard served with toasted baguette. Bouchon’s version is light and delicate due to a labor intensive process of curing, poaching and whipping, but it’s almost too delicate and fine, as it can’t hold its form for more than a few seconds on the toasted baguette, and melts into liquid.  It’s organ meat after all, and it’s meant to be robust and hearty.  5 oz of fragile and unstable foie gras served in a glass canning jar goes for an unbelievable $48.50, making me appreciate Chef Nyesha Arrington‘s amazing foie gras mason jar with port wine gelée for $12, perhaps the best in LA, even more.

Moules au safran came with a basket of delicious frites with crispy potato skin and a generous sprinkling of salt to pucker my lips.  Maine bouchot mussels steamed in a heavy cast iron dutch oven with white wine, mustard and saffron was good, but a smidgen too watery and diluted in flavor.

Have you ever dreamed of the day when you could have the perfect excuse and enough courage to order a Grand Plateau de fruits de mer at a restaurant, that luxurious and grandiose tower of mollusks and crustaceans at the center of every diner’s desire?  Have you ever wondered what it would even be like to order a miniature version in a Petit Plateau?  French men know how to enjoy life without so much as a grain of guilt, and I was happy to oblige to their order of Bouchon’s Grand Plateau de Mer, a 2 tiered seafood extravaganza for $110- 1 whole lobster, 16 oysters, 8 shrimp, 8 clams, 9 mussels and Dungeness crab came with all of the appropriate fixings for the highlight event of the evening.  Life can be grand, n’est-ce pas?

Truite aux Amandes, a pan-roasted trout fillet with haricots verts, almonds & beurre noisette was perfectly cooked and elegantly flavored.  The brown butter, lemon and parsley sauce was surprisingly light, making it easy to enjoy and digest this delicate dish that was saturated with a lovely toasted almond fragrance.

Gigot d’Agneau, roasted leg of lamb with Swiss chard, pommes boulangère & lamb jus was a textbook meat dish with perfect execution and delivery although I was hoping for something more exciting.

Boudin noir, blood sausage with potato purée and caramelized apples, was sensational.  This is the type of food that defines bistro fare- hearty, rustic and loud but comforting and flavorful.  The blood sausage was packed with dense savor with a hint of pleasant iron finish unique to this type of charcuterie.  The classic pairing of boudin noir and sweet apples, as always, hit the spot.

There are many accompagnements to choose from at Bouchon, like butternut squash with poached prunes, sautéed spinach, potato purée and brussel sprouts, but we opted for a champignons des bois of fragrant and earthy sautéed forest mushrooms that were plump and fully saturated with French butter.

Bouchon in Beverly Hills is truly a magical and enchanting restaurant, one with the allure and power to make any who step through their entrance believe that they are in Paris.  It’s easy to forget the passage of time in this elegant vortex, especially when you’re engrossed in your glass of champagne with fruits de mer over laughter and engaging conversation with beautiful friends.  Still, many of their dishes can use some tweaking to be worthy of the Keller label, and bistro-friendly prices would entice me to visit more frequently.

If you haven’t had a chance to visit Bouchon yet, it’s a must-go for its sophisticated ambiance and charm.  Many may agree that it’s the most beautiful dining room in Los Angeles, set on a pristine block of the infamous Beverly Hills zip code.  Their kitchen, unlike any other, is quite epic too, with floors so clean that you can eat off of it and cookware meticulously and impeccably polished to where it looks like it’s never been used before.  Large heavy doors line a rear hallway, each an entryway into a different Bouchon world of ‘jardin’, ‘poisson’, ‘dairy’ or ‘viande’ with every container clearly labeled and signed.  There’s a separate kitchen just for chocolate and ice cream, and of course a busy boulangerie to churn out his signature epi bread.  A large plasma screen TV in the middle of the busy kitchen broadcasts live stream with Keller’s numerous other Michelin-starred restaurants on both coasts. If they started charging admission for kitchen tours, I would gladly pay to relive the experience of walking through that impressive and mind blowing factory that belongs in the Smithsonian.

Bouchon Beverly Hills

235 N Canon Dr
Beverly Hills, California 90210
(310) 271-9910

Random trivia: Did you know that almonds are not nuts, but are in fact stone fruits- like peaches, plums and cherries?

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.

Afaria – Paris

IMG_5878Afaria, a small French bistro tucked away on a tiny street in the 15th arrondissement, is a relative newcomer to the Paris culinary scene.  We became interested in dining at Afaria after reading an alluring review on a travel magazine.  Young and handsome 27 year old chef Julien Duboué worked with fellow Basque Alain Dutournier at Michelin starred Le Carré des Feuillants, then at George V, and Daniel Boulud in New York.  When he decided to open his own place, it wasn’t so easy.  He was turned down by 9 banks before finding funding for the restaurant.  Now it’s become an important landmark for locals and a go-to place for foodie tourists in the know.

Duboué’s food combines classic French techniques with bold Basque flavors, served in a casual and friendly environment.  Simple wooden chairs and tables fill the small dining room, flanked by distressed mirrors enscribed with an extensive wine list.  The space is quaint, unpretentious and relaxing- the friendly staff made us feel immediately at home. They have French and English menus, and most of the staff spoke English, although we were the only non-locals that evening.  IMG_5793There was an elderly gentleman celebrating his birthday that night with about 10 friends and family.  A few couples were holding hands and looking longingly into each other’s eyes.  Next to us was a party of 8 young beautiful women, giggling and toasting to a girl’s night out.  After-work Parisians were sitting around the tall communal table by the entrance, nibbling on tapas and laughing out their hard day’s work over glasses of wine.  This is a warm place of gathering, where people from all walks of life come together to enjoy life, drinks and good food.

We started with Boudin noir aux pommes en croûte de moutarde, black pudding with apples in a mustard crust.  For those of you who don’t know, black pudding is made from pig’s blood which gives it a distinct savory depth with an irony finish.  The pudding was light and fluffy in consistency, and due to the thick layer of rich apple flavor it didn’t taste gamey at all.  It was lovely with the tart acidic salad greens.

IMG_5790We really wanted to get the magret de canard rôti grilled duck fillet over a bed of grapevines, which is one of the house specialties, but a large party of 8 next to our table snagged the last of it.  For what it’s worth, it looked and smelled amazing!

Couteaux et moules cuisinés a la basque, Basque style shellfish of mussels and razor clams was delicious.  This dish truly represents rustic Basque cuisine- hearty tomato broth with bold chorizo flavors, earthy spices, crisp flavors of fresh parsley and herbs, and an abundance of garlic, onions and smokey dried red peppers.  The fresh razor clams had a beautiful plump texture, and the sauce was addictive.  We kept ordering more bread to soak up the wonderful juices.  It also went wonderfully with our carafe of white sangria which had ginger, lemon and pineapple.

IMG_5785Mignon de porc ibaiona grillé, grilled pork fillet with spring vegetables in a basil sauce, with pommes gaufrettes homemade chips. The pork was moist and tender, and the basil sauce was an incredibly refreshing complement to the fresh and sweet vegetables and mozzarella cubes.  It went well with the light and dry Elian Da Ros 2007 Côtes-du-marmandais red wine from Cocumont France.

IMG_5797The escabèche of chicken Landaise with artichokes and summer truffles was a surprise, as we ordered it thinking it was a hot dish.  It felt a bit strange to eat a cold chicken dish, and the chicken was a bit on the dry side.  The summer black truffle aroma was disappointingly absent, and the dish lacked depth and flavor.

IMG_5796IMG_5852Afaria came back strong with a fascinating and heavenly dessert dish- the Baked Alaska with cognac flambée.  The torched cognac was poured onto the dessert at the table, making for an exciting and mesmerizing experience.  Hidden under the flambéed white meringue layer was a wonderfully rich vanilla bean ice cream.  By the time we reached the bottom crust layer, it was nicely soaked in cognac and had an intoxicating rich flavor.  This was one of my favorite desserts on this Europe trip.

IMG_5859We followed the dessert with shots of raspberry-spiked Armagnac, a recipe said to have come from the chef’s Basque grandmother.  A most ideal digestif to eIMG_5861nd the meal with.  By the time we finished dinner at around 1 am the restaurant had closed and we were the last customers there.  The friendly staff and Chef Julien invited us over to the bar area to share a lovely bottle of 1995 vintage Billecart-Salmon champagne with them.  It’s always such an extraordinary and memorable experience to get to know the people who create the food- especially over drinks and laughs (and some dancing!).

If you get tired of stuffy and expensive restaurants while visiting Paris, go to Afaria to relax and kick back.  You can leave your worries at the door and get pampered with comfort food and friendly service.

Afaria
15 Rue Desnouettes, 15th Arr.
Paris, France
33-1-48-56-15-36
Closed Sunday and lunchtime Mondays
Random trivia:   Did you know that the Basque language is unrelated structurally or historically to any language now spoken anywhere on the planet, or to any known to have ever existed?