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.

Life in Burgundy – Bourgogne, France

On my last trip to France, I spent a few days at my cousin’s house in Savigny-les-Beaune in Burgundy.  It’s always a joy for me to visit her, because I get to experience country living at its best, surrounded by the best foods and wines in the world.  Her husband Patrick Bize is the 4th generation winemaker of Simon Bize et Fils, which for me means a 15 second walk down to their wine cellar for unlimited access to their wines, 24 hours a day.  My cousin, who is an excellent cook, made simple but hearty and delicious meals for me every day to complement their beautiful wines.  Here are some photos of the good life in wine country…

Horse plowing the vineyards in Gevrey-Chambertin

Horse plowing the vineyards in Gevrey-Chambertin

Wine aging in the cellar

Wine aging in the cellar

Bottles aging in the cellar

Bottles aging in the cellar

Wine labels

Wine labels

Wine labels

Wine labels

One of the first lunches that my cousin cooked for me was Poulet de Bresse baked in the oven with house white wine.  All foods and desserts that require wine are cooked only with their Bize wine.  The last time I visited them, she cooked an outstanding coq au vin with 2 bottles of their pinot noir.  Although it seems like such a luxury from my point of view, this is ordinary daily life for winemakers.  What a life!

Poulet de Bresse in house white wine

Poulet de Bresse in house white wine

Poulet de Bresse, given an AOC status, is the most prized chicken in France.  Everything from rearing to quality of soil, from diet to slaughtering, is strictly regulated to maintain its famous gamey yet tender and delicate fatty flavor.

Poulet de Bresse

Poulet de Bresse

The Bresse chicken dish she made me was garnished with a simple cream and mustard grain sauce (using Dijon mustard, of course- Dijon is only about an hour drive away), accompanied with fava beans sautéed in butter and baguette from the boulangerie down the street.  I was lucky enough to score the tender chicken foie, while my cousin enjoyed the gizzard.

Poulet de Bresse with its foie, fava beans and baguette

Poulet de Bresse with its foie, fava beans and baguette

One afternoon my cousin dropped us off in the middle of the forest, telling us that we needed to forage for our dinner.  This forest was her secret place to pick wild asparagus, les asperges sauvages, which I had never even heard of until then.  In this dense, dark, cool and quiet forest, we diligently picked these long and thin wild asparagus stalks in silence.  They were quite abundant, and I was so excited to be able to forage for my own food.  It’s such a wonderful experience to be able to see where your food comes from, and to be able to enjoy the fruits of your own labor.

Wild asparagus

Wild asparagus

I blanched the asparagus in boiling salt water, then tossed them with spaghetti, sea salt and olive oil.  It was one of the best pasta dishes I’ve ever had.

Spaghetti avec les asperges sauvages

Spaghetti avec les asperges sauvages

One of their winemakers brought over a basket of freshly picked baby greens from his garden, which he dressed with a simple viniagrette.  We enjoyed these fresh vegetables with terrine de foie de lapin (rabbit liver terrine) and an award winning jambon persilles (ham with parsley) from Maison Raillard in Beaune.  Paired with never-ending supplies of their house wine, this al fresco family dinner was one of the most memorable meals in my life.

Fresh garden greens with Bize wine

Fresh garden greens with Bize wine

Jambo persilles aved terrine de foie de lapin

Jambon persilles avec terrine de foie de lapin

On another evening, we gathered on the terrace to watch the sunset with a bottle of 1999 Moët et Chandon rosé and grougere, which is a type of cheese bread.  The inside of the bread was soft and doughy with a subtle and elegant cheese flavor.

Champagne toast with grujere

Champagne toast with grougere

Grujere cheese bread

Grougere cheese bread

My cousin made a delicious tuna, onion and tomato quiche one day.  Everything is made from scratch here, with great love and care.  Her dried cherry tart was also fantastic- freshly picked cherries that were sun dried on the terrace.

Tuna, tomato and onion tart

Tuna, tomato and onion quiche

Dried cherry tart

Dried cherry tart

For my last dinner, she pulled out the good stuff.  Burgundy escargot with garlic and butter, and house made duck leg confit.  The escargot were succulent and juicy, and the duck confit had perfectly crispy skin covering tender meat that fell right off the bones.

Burgundy escargots ready to go into the oven

Burgundy escargots ready to go into the oven

House made duck leg confit

House made duck leg confit

Other dishes that she made include asparagus soup and strawberries marinated in house red wine.  Oh, and don’t forget the cheeses.  Every meal concluded with the obligatory assortment of French cheeses.  My favorite was the Epoisse, perfectly stinky and incredibly creamy. My time in Savigny-les-Beaune was magical, beautiful and happy.  Everything was prepared with great care and detail.  Every night we would gather around the table as the kids talked about how their school day went and Patrick about his predictions for this year’s harvest.  With laughter abound, delicious food filling our content bellies, and Patrick returning every half hour with yet another bottle of wine, mealtime was always a place of love and warmth.  Although I enjoyed my dining experience in Paris, from local bistros to high end restaurants, the food that I had at my cousin’s house was truly priceless.   Oh, I miss them so much…

Cheese plate

Cheese plate