Magnum pop-up at Royal T- Uni tasting dinner

The Magnum crew duo that is Chef Joseph Mahon and Sommelier David Haskell did their 3rd installation of dinner pop-ups recently at Royal T in Culver City, an event that showcased Mahon’s creativity in contemporary cuisine and Haskell’s keen talent for superb wine pairing.  All 3 nights of this pop-up dinner event offered tasting menus of 5, 7 or 9 courses that featured stellar creations like miso cured hanger steak and potato chip soup in addition to grass-fed beef sliders and oysters with brown butter as bar bites.

Wine, beer and sake pairings for each dish were carefully chosen by David Haskell who has worked at reputable establishments like Le Cirque and Aquavit.  Each pairing, which he poured and introduced himself for each diner at Royal T, had a specific vision and effect that he wanted the diners to experience.  Whether it was for the wine to draw out the sweetness of the fruits on the plate or for the sake to make a bold contrasting statement to the protein, each pairing had a story to tell.

On the last of the 3 nights, a special 8 course uni tasting dinner was offered to celebrate the sommelier’s birthday.  The Santa Barbara uni extravaganza was an ode to his mother Liz Haskell, a well known uni aficionado and enthusiast who was in attendance that evening.  Friends and family came out to celebrate Haskell’s birthday on this final night of a successful run where the Magnum crew donated 5% of dinner proceeds to the Japan Sake Brewers Association.  The servers also donated 10% of tips for this cause to support Japan earthquake and tsunami relief, an amazing show of generosity and good will.

The uni tasting began with a variation of the cured Thai snapper amuse bouche that was served on the previous nights.  The same luscious pieces of fish were now served wrapped around Japanese shrimp chips with pea sprouts and leek emulsion.

Santa Barbara uni on oysters with soy mignonette was my favorite uni course of the evening.  The simple, unadulterated briny flavors were harmonious with the acidity and minerality of N.V. Jacques Lassaigne Les Vignes de Montgueux Blanc de Blancs Chardonnay.

Uni draped over tuna tartare with creamy dashi aioli and nori flecks was also a delicious dish, paired with a 2006 Château Giraud G Bordeaux Blanc Sec.

Uni tartine came as geometric contemporary pieces of bright orange uni juxtaposed against round cucumber balls on brined halibut with a dash of ponzu sauce.  Haskell paired these with a 2005 Schoffit Vieilles Vignes, an Alsatian Chasselas.

The Uni cauliflower royale was served in both tasting menus, a glass filled with layers of uni, creamy cauliflower royale, fennel, diced apple, apple and cucumber foam and nori.  The 2009 Riviera Ligure di Ponente, an Italian Pigato, worked well to draw out the sweetness of the apples.

Uni and bone marrow pizza was paired with a 2005 FX Pichler Riesling Smaragd Oberhauser from Austria.

For the first of the 2 meat courses, Chef Mahon used uni with a Bordelaise sauce to flavor veal and shiitake mushroom tempura, a dish that was paired with a 2003 Jacques Puffeney Vieilles Vignes Arbois rouge.

For the venison dish with uni risotto and shiso pepper sauce, Haskell brought a 2004 Marc Sorrel Hermitage Syrah to complement the protein.

Yuzu crème brûlée was served for dessert again with poached apricots and kumquat, this time the caramelized crust done well.  This final dish was paired with Damien Delecheneau’s 2009 Domaine La Grange Tiphaine Rose Touraine Riage Tournant.

The uni tasting menu offered 7 interesting interpretations of the popular ocean delicacy, with the most simplest being my favorite- coupled with a delicate oyster with a dash of soy.  David Haskell’s wine pairings were impressive, his selections complementing Mahon’s food in the most pure, clean and unobtrusive manner to allow the uni to take center stage and shine.  It was a wonderful fun evening with great music from a live DJ and incredibly professional staff maintaining perfect flow of service.

The Magnum crew allowed me to work with them to set up a silent auction event to raise money for the Japan Sake Brewers Association.  With the incredible generosity and support from our friends in the food and beverage industry in Los Angeles, we were able to offer amazing auction items like tasting dinners with Chef Fabio Viviani, Starry Kitchen, The Thompson Hotel and Guelaguetza.  David Haskell auctioned precious wines from his personal cellar, including a 1983 Pothier Rieusset Les Rugiens, while California winery Presqu’ile donated 2 personalized signed bottles of wine and Rosso Wine Shop donated a private wine session.  Local bloggers MyLastBite, Ravenous Couple and Glutster showed their support by auctioning specialized food tours, and artisans Sugarbird Sweets, Scoops Westside and soba teacher Sonoko Sakai volunteered their crafts and goods.  Curious Palate chipped in with a gift certificate, and the amazing meat mavens Lindy & Grundy will be conducting a private one on one butchering lesson for the lucky auction winner next week.  Even Chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry donated a personalized signed copy of the French Laundry Cookbook for the auction, which they kindly sent all the way to Japan for a Japanese bidder.  Beloved local chefs have also shown their generosity by offering to do private cooking classes and dinners- Chef Laurent Quenioux, Chef Christian Page of the Daily Dose, Chef Michael Voltaggio, Chef Walter Manzke and Chef Craig Thornton.

As if helping with Japan relief efforts and donating dinner proceeds wasn’t enough, the dynamic Magnum duo have donated their time and services to do 2 private pop-up dinners as a part of the silent auction, the first dinner occurring this weekend.  With the incredible support of all of these people and more, we were able to raise $12,000 to donate to the Japanese sake industry.  Thank you very much to everybody who was a part of this amazing collaborative effort!

Magnum crew

Random trivia: Did you know that the name urchin is an old name for the round spiny hedgehogs that sea urchins resemble?

Magnum pop-up dinner at Royal T

Many people in the food and beverage industry in Los Angeles have stepped up to show their love and support for Japan after the devastating earthquake and tsunamis shattered the country on March 11.  The Magnum crew pair of Chef Joseph Mahon and Sommelier David Haskell was no exception.  The dynamic duo recently ran a pop-up dinner event in Culver City, the third installation after successful runs at Biergarten and Pal Cabron.  This time the pop-up dinner was at a Japanese cosplay maid cafe called Royal T, a most fitting backdrop for Chef Mahon’s inventive menu and Magnum’s efforts to raise money for Japan relief.

Chef Joseph Mahon, former executive chef of Bastide, incorporated hints of Japanese ingredients like miso, nori, dashi and yuzu both in his colorful tasting menu and the bar bites menu.  Dinner tastings were offered as 5, 7 or 9 courses with or without wine pairings.  His Magnum partner David Haskell brought life to each delicious plate with his brilliant wine, beer and sake pairings that together with the food narrated a beautiful story.  For 3 consecutive nights, the venue came alive with vivid installations of interactive kitschy art, funky pop music spun by a live DJ in the lounge and the friendly staff all sporting Magnum T-shirts.

The Magnum crew was kind enough to collaborate with me in fund raising efforts to donate to a wonderful charity in Japan.  The catastrophe of March 11 that has already claimed more than 14,000 lives also devastated the Japanese sake industry.  Sake has deep historical and religious roots in Japanese culture, and the fact that more than 200 breweries were affected (some completely destroyed) by the natural disasters will affect the country’s traditions, culture and economy forever.  Mahon and Haskell pledged to donate 5% of dinner proceeds to the Japan Sake Brewers Association.  In fact, the entire Magnum pop-up crew came together as one for this wonderful cause, with the staff also contributing 10% of their tips to the Japanese charity fund.

Chef Mahon started the tasting dinner with a delicious amuse bouche of cured Thai snapper with crumbled shrimp chips and pea sprouts.

Oysters were served warm with a generous drizzle of brown butter and lemon sauce, and crunchy green cucumber balls for textural contrast.  This dish was paired with a German Riesling, Von Buhl Brut from Bad Dürkheim.

Crispy salty potato chips imparted crunchy texture and playfulness into the potato chip soup with ramps and cucumber, and it was the luscious piece of fried oyster that was the shining star of the dish.  This was paired with a 2008 Slovenian Pinela from winemaker Ivan Batic.

Mahon’s Fennel Royale layered slick pieces of sweet sea urchin with apple foam, creamy fennel royale and flecks of nori powder.  The intense acidity of the paired 2009 Ligurian Pigato from Riviera Ligure di Ponente, Italy enhanced the fruity sweetness of the dish.

Silky crispy tofu with sunflower seed crust was accentuated with pickled vegetables, cilantro and dashi emulsion.  The pairing of Hitachino Nest White Ale was lovely, especially as it represented Ibaraki prefecture in Japan, one of the affected regions in the earthquake and tsunami.

Tender tuna slices encased around jicama, crab and mango were flavored with spicy mayonnaise and paired with a French 2008 Chenin Blanc from Francois Pinon ‘Silex Noir’.

Braised baby octopus with a nice subtle char on its surface was mounted on a creamy leek risotto with shaved cashews and a drizzle of savory pancetta vinaigrette.  A 2009 Jean-Paul Brun Chardonnay was paired with this dish.

Perfectly cooked moist ocean trout with lobster jus, garnished with fresh peas, pea sprouts, mint and oyster mushrooms, was paired with a 2009 Jean-Paul Brun ‘Villes Vignes’ Gamay.

Grass fed beef sliders with bibb lettuce and chipotle aioli were served both as bar bites and as adjuncts to the tasting menu on the first evening.  Cooked medium rare, perfectly moist and packed with flavorful juices, these sliders were beautifully done and one of my favorite dishes of the evening.  Haskell did a playful pairing with Kikusui Funaguchi Junmai Ginjo sake from Niigata prefecture in Japan, again one of the prefectures affected by the earthquake.

One of the other standout hits of the evening was Chef Mahon’s miso cured hanger steak, tender cuts of beef fully infused with the sweet earthy aromas of miso, plated with creamed spinach, shiitake mushroom tempura, sesame seeds and ponzu sauce.  The meat was paired with a 2008 Domaine de Majas ‘Three Trees’ Grenache-Carignan red.

The tasting menu ended with a yuzu crème brûlée topped with poached apricots and halved kumquats, paired elegantly with Damien Delecheneau’s 2009 Domaine La Grange Tiphaine Rose Touraine Riage Tournant.

The first evening of the pop-up event at Royal T drew in a full crowd, the packed room filled with happy diners who enjoyed Mahon’s food and the service from Haskell who personally poured every glass of wine with an explanation of each food and wine pairing.  Meanwhile, guests perused the silent auction table set up front, put together by the collaborative effort of acclaimed chefs, restaurateurs, local artisans and food bloggers who all donated private dinners, gift baskets, dinner certificates and many delicious food and beverage related auction items for bid to raise money for the Japan Sake Brewers Association.  The third and final night of the Magnum Royal T pop up event featured a special uni tasting menu to commemorate David Haskell’s birthday who paid homage to his uni enthusiast mother Liz Haskell.  Details of the uni dinner will follow in the next post.

Magnum events

Royal T

8910 Washington Boulevard
Culver City, CA 90232-2326
(310) 559-6300

Random trivia: Did you know that potato chips were invented by Chef George Crum in 1853 in Saratoga Springs, New York, when he tried to please a customer who sent back his fried potatoes to the kitchen for being too soggy and thick?  These thin crispy delights became a staple on his menu as ‘Saratoga chips’, and the rest is history.

Rustic Mondays at Fraiche Restaurant

When the 9.0 magnitude earthquake shook Japan on March 11, 2011, and massive tsunamis engulfed the northeast coast of the country, the world watched with sadness and grief at the immense loss of life.  In the midst of this devastation, many have stood up to make a difference by donating their time, money and services for Japan.  Chefs and restaurateurs in Los Angeles have also done their part in raising awareness for relief efforts by hosting dinners where a portion of the proceeds go to charitable funds.  One such fun and delicious event was hosted by Chef Benjamin Bailly and Chef Ricardo Zarate at Fraiche Restaurant in Culver City, where proceeds from the dinner went to Operation USA.

The dinner was the first to kick off a weekly series called Rustic Mondays, featuring a guest chef and his or her prix fixe 3 course dinner in conjunction with Chef Bailly’s 3 course offerings. For a mere $35, diners can choose from either Chef Bailly’s dish or the guest chef’s dish for each of the 3 courses.  Rustic Mondays are not meant to be a competition of chef vs chef, but more of a collaboration and celebration of culinary diversity.

Chef Bailly, who now oversees the kitchens at both Fraiche locations (Culver City and Santa Monica), represented his French heritage while Chef Ricardo Zarate, who was recently crowned Food & Wine’s Best New Chef 2011, came strong with his signature Peruvian delights.

Chef Bailly started off the first course with a Salade Gourmande, a large filling plate of baby greens, haricot verts, sautéed mushrooms, sweet candied tomatoes and goat cheese croquettes tossed with hazelnuts and a very subtle truffle vinaigrette.  A perfectly poached egg bled its thick bright yellow sap onto this salad while the warm goat cheese croquettes proved to be the highlight.

Chef Zarate’s Ceviche Mixto with tender squid, large meaty succulent shrimp, scallops and covina tossed in a Leche de Tigre sauce was the most successful and delicious dish of the evening.  His famous signature dish, a delicately flavored bowl of fresh seafood with bold contrasting textures from crunchy fried corn kernels, diced red onions and airy camote, reminded me through every successive bite why he won the prestigious Food & Wine award this year- unpretentious, simple, humble and delicious.

The seared Scottish salmon in Bailly’s Saumon Aux Lentilles was perfectly cooked, a sweet moist piece of fatty fish that paired wonderfully with the creamy country mustard sauce.  The Puy lentils ragout, while blissfully injected with bacon essence, would have fared better with less cooking time and cleaner textures.

Zarate’s Pachamanca was a double fisting meat lovers paradise, a simple yet satisfying entrée of braised lamb that melted in my mouth, next to a generous serving of equally tender pork belly cooked with a crispy crackling layer of skin.  Meat and potatoes, and in this case Peruvian potatoes with fava beans and baby carrots, were elevated to sophistication with Zarate’s divine sauce.

The French sure know how to please a woman, and they always strike where it counts.  Bailly’s beautiful Paris-Brest hit the spot with its soft airy buttery pâte à choux and its glorious praliné crème studded with cocoa nibs.  2 servings of this beautiful pastry still left me longing for more.

Sol y Sombra, a refreshing cold dessert by Zarate, contained fun delightful textures from its mixture of dried plums and almonds on quinoa con leche with a drizzle of purple corn syrup.

Rustic Mondays, a global celebration of Los Angeles chefs, was off to a wonderful start at Fraiche Restaurant with our beloved Chef Zarate as its first guest.  Future guest chefs will include an amazing line up of some of our most famous and cherished talents.  In addition, Deysi Alvarez and Jody Barton will be creating unique cocktails to pair with these dinners, such as the Algorrobina made with egg yolk, carob syrup, cream and pisco, my favorite drink of the evening.  Thank you to Chef Bailly and Chef Zarate for contributing a portion of the dinner proceeds for Japan earthquake and tsunami relief.

Fraiche Restaurant

9411 Culver Boulevard
Culver City, CA 90232
(310) 839-6800

Random trivia: Did you know that pâte à choux, made from butter, flour, eggs and water, refers to the light airy pastry dough that is the basic template for many other dishes that we love to eat?  Flavored with cheese they become gougères, mixed with potato purée and fried they become pommes dauphine, shaped into elongated tubes and filled with cream they are éclairs, and they are also what make croquembouches, profiteroles, beignets and crullers.

LudoBites at Royal/T

One of my favorite chefs, Ludo Lefebvre, has returned once again for a short 13-day ‘guerrilla style pop-up’ LudoBites event this month.  After a hugely successful LudoBites part deux at the Breadbar this past summer where I had one of the best dining experiences this year, he has returned for a short stint at the Royal/T café and gallery in Culver City. Trained under the tutelage of legendary French grandmasters Pierre Gagnaire and Alain Passard, Ludo himself has earned prestige and recognition during his years as executive chef at L’Orangerie and Bastide here in Los Angeles.  This charming chef, who people love to hate but ultimately love anyway, kept us entertained this summer when he competed on Top Chef Masters.  Through LudoBites, he has detached himself from the bureaucracies of the traditional restaurant model in pursuit of a more free and independent way to express his creativity.

Royal/T….an interesting choice of venues, I thought.  Royal/T is a Japanese maid café メイドカフェwhere the young female waitresses are dressed up in Lolita style maid uniforms with short frilly petticoated skirts and knee high white socks.  It’s still widely popular all over Japan, but it originated in the heart of Akihabara where video game and anime ‘otaku’, who are usually socially awkward techie geeks, go to seek refuge from the otherwise fast-paced Japanese society where they don’t quite blend in.  At these maid cafés they are treated like masters of the house, or ‘goshujinsama’ご主人様, and they are welcomed by a cute ‘Welcome home, master’ as if they were returning home to their private mansion after a long day.  At the café customers enjoy a simple meal while playing games and taking photos with their maids.  They enjoy their precious time of getting full attention from their personal maids before going back out into the cold concrete Tokyo jungle.

I was surprised to arrive at Royal/T that evening for LudoBites and find that we were in fact going to be served by cute maids in full costume.  It was a surreal experience to be dining in this rather stunning large art space showcasing interesting contemporary installations while eating Ludo’s innovative cuisine served to us by a Japanese maid.  Was I really in Culver City?

The venue was packed that evening, and I wasn’t surprised, as I heard that the 13-day event sold out within a couple of days.  Among the other diners that evening were actor Fred Savage and the chef/owner of Jitlada.  Despite being short one sous chef who left a few days prior, Ludo prepared a spectacular dinner for a full house while his wife Krissy ran a tight ship up front and the highly efficient maids kept a perfect flow of service.

The first dish of tuna sashimi with sushi rice ice cream, soy sauce gelée and smoked ginger oil was a deconstructed contemporary interpretation of nigiri sushi.  The cold rice ice cream was light and refreshing while sprinkles of deep fried onions and aromatic ginger oil added a delightful smokiness to the tender cuts of tuna.  The soy gelée, daikon sprouts, hint of wasabi cream and flakes of togarashi red pepper lended different levels of tang and kick to this wonderful dish.

The caramelized endive with gingerbread croutons and citrus wedges was a simple dish that seemed almost plain and boring after the exciting crudo dish that we started with. Although it was nothing spectacular, we enjoyed the way that the acidity from the orange and grapefruit wedges was in perfect balance with the nutty olive oil.  It’s the kind of dish that I would expect an Italian cook to make at home for dinner on a regular weeknight- simple, honest and good.

Celery root soup with black truffle and parmesan was rich and creamy with just enough parmesan presence that didn’t overwhelm the dish. The black truffle essence in this soup was earthy and delicious, and we all absolutely loved the soup.  For round 2 of the soup, one of my dining partners had brought something special for us that evening that would up the pleasure factor exponentially.

My friend Haru, sous chef at the Gordon Ramsay restaurant, brought a nice big piece of truffle to our LudoBites dinner to celebrate the beginning of winter black truffle season.  This soup was the perfect first dish to enhance with the black truffles.  Ludo and Krissy both laughed at us as Haru happily shaved away.

The slowly sautéed Monterey wild squid with kimchi purée, black olives, red onions and chorizo oil was an interesting dish.  The fresh squid, cooked perfectly to an exquisite tenderness, was quite amazing with the smokey chorizo oil. It was hard for me to fully embrace the kimchi purée.  It tasted exactly like kimchi when I popped it in my mouth with eyes closed, but there was something about this brownish yellow glob visually resembling Gerber’s baby food that I couldn’t get myself to accept.  My palate was also confused by this dish that tasted like ojinguh bokkeum, or Korean spicy stir fried squid, which I make at home all the time in my pajamas.  Don’t get me wrong, this dish was delicious, but after being blown away by dishes like foie gras croque monsieur with cherry amaretto sauce and escargot ginger curry at the previous LudoBites, I just didn’t expect to come here to taste something that is so everyday to me.

Did you notice that the photo of the squid dish was less yellow and looked more beautiful?  The biggest problem in taking photos inside dark restaurants is that the dim lighting is not kind to even the best of camera lenses, and Photoshop editing can only do so much to correct the problem (and I don’t even have Photoshop).  Well, the Lefebvres, who kindly embrace and welcome the presence of foodbloggers, purchased and set up a lightbox in one of the back rooms of Royal/T so that diners can take better photos of the food.  I was quite dumbfounded by this incredible act of thoughtfulness and hospitality, and at first I thought that Krissy was joking.  As you can see, it makes a huge difference in photo quality.  However, I chose to take the rest of the photos at the table so that my fellow diners and I could eat the food while it was still fresh and warm.  After all, I didn’t come here to take photos.  I came here to eat.

My favorite dish of the evening was the crispy confit pork belly with burnt eggplant purée, fried plantain chip, coconut foam and thai chili emulsion.  The pork belly, crispy and crackling on the outside and sinfully fatty on the inside, was in itself quite amazing with the aromatic coconut foam.  But it was the black purée, that unassuming dark dollop quietly sitting on the sideline waiting for its cue from the pork belly, that ended up being the showstopper.  It really tasted exactly like burnt eggplant, and we were all taken by surprise by this fact.  One of the best ways to enjoy Japanese eggplants during the autumn season is by simply charring them over a grill and peeling off the burnt skin, enjoying the smokey aromatic flesh with a little bit of soy sauce and grated ginger.  This black purée tasted exactly like that yakinasu dish at its fall peak, and I couldn’t get enough of it.  Innovative, brilliant, and simply genius.

The egg ‘Meurette’ with braised red cabbage and lardo toast was a contemporary ode to the classic oeufs en meurette, a traditional French Burgundy dish of poached eggs in red wine sauce.  The tartness of the red wine braised cabbage was in perfect equilibrium with the richness of the runny egg yolk and flavorful sheets of pork fat veneer.  We really enjoyed this dish that stayed pretty close and true to the classic bistro original.

For round 2, we enhanced the dish with the winter black truffles.  Did we go overboard with the truffle shavings?  Why, yes.  And why not?

I loved the textures of the foie gras beignet.  The outer shell was delightfully soft and chewy like delicate mochi, and the tender lumps of foie gras that practically came spilling out were delightful.  Although the dried apricot and saffron purée was too sweet for my palate which generally detests sweet fruit sauces in savory dishes, the Frenchmen at the table were all over it.

Braised veal with udon, caramelized onions, kombu dashi and enoki mushrooms sparked a huge debate at our table.  This dish was like the illegitimate cross cultural child born out of an adulterous affair between a French man and a Japanese woman.  With a French man, a Japanese woman (me), and a French-Japanese man in the dining party, you can imagine the conversation we had about this dish that came out of a big bang collision between blanquette de veau, soupe a l’oignon and nabeyaki udon.  One thing that we could all agree on was that on a deep visceral level, this dish was comforting- there was a moment when we all sipped and slurped in silence, breathing a sigh of relief after each gulp.  The garlic, ginger, miso and goat cheese paste was quite amazing, and in my opinion very pivotal in this dish.

The final savory dish was a perfectly grilled cut of juicy beef tenderloin with crispy lard and vichy carrots in a mustard sauce.  We used the last of the winter black truffle to enhance this delicious dish.  It was a deeply gratifying tasty dish that went especially well with our superb bottle of 2003 Vendanges Bordeaux from Chateau de Reignac.

Fourme d’Ambert tourte with wine poached pear and honey balsamic reduction sauce was heavenly.  The wonderful robust Fourme d’Ambert blue cheese, from the Auvergne region of France, is one of France’s oldest cheeses and has a distinct strong flavor.  The acidity of the balsamic sauce, along with the sweet tartness of the pear, kept the potentially overwhelming cheese in check and it all made for a delicious dessert.

I love when Ludo presents original and questionable flavor combinations that surprisingly work really well.  When we saw guacamole with ginger ice cream and exotic fruits on the menu, it kept us on our toes all evening.  What is it going to taste like, and what is it going to look like?  My brain couldn’t even begin to imagine what this dish would taste like before I scooped that first delectable spoonful into my mouth.  The buttery smoothness of avocado, the sweetness of mango and banana, the tang and crunch of passion fruit seeds, and the slight zest of aromatic ginger ice cream…it was luscious.

Chef Ludo Lefebvre, you have done it again.  Your bottomless tank of unique avant-garde flavor combinations and ideas is ingenious, and your mastery of manipulating these diverse ingredients is an art.  Your fervor to stay true to your passion for honest good food that is sterile from restaurant politics is intense and admirable, and your dynamic personality is enchanting.  Thank you for the amazing dinner experience at LudoBites, and thank you for the laughs, the drinks, and the beautiful gift- the wooden cutting board branded with your signature emblem of a knife wielding tattooed coq is almost too precious to use.  I hope to see you very soon at LudoBites part quatre.

As for the experience at this pop maid café?  Of course, the men at our table really enjoyed being served by our exceptional Japanese maid Ayumi chan.  And quite frankly, I did too.  I can see why it’s such a cult phenomenon in Japan.  Now if they would only open a butler café in LA…萌え〜!


Royal/T Cafe

Random trivia: Did you know that only female pigs are used to hunt for truffles, as the smell of white truffles in particular contain pheromones that are attractive to sows but not boars?

I conclude with a lovely quote from Brillet-Savarin, renowned French gastronome, on truffles: “The truffle is not a positive aphrodisiac, but it may under certain circumstances render women more affectionate, and men more amiable.”

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.