Cousin Stephanie was visiting from New York. "Meet me at Pigalle," I said. "It's across from Farmer's Market, next to the Farmer's Daughter Motel." We both had to laugh. Well, what's in a name? Or "How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?" in a song. Clues, I think, to migration patterns and cultural history. GIs brought new-fangled tastes back to the states. And little French restaurants had cachet well before nouvelle cuisine.
Pigalle reminds me of an earlier vintage of French restaurants. For one thing, the menu is posted outside. There is understated decoration, lattice work and soft pink walls, a throwback in these high-concept times. The lighting is muted and, yes, "flattering"; the room small and spotlessly clean. Pigalle feels gentle from the moment you walk in. On our first visit, we were warmly greeted by a lovely woman who turned out to be the manager as well as the wife of Duc Huynh, the Vietnamese chef classically trained in French cuisine.
Cousin Stephanie and I glanced at the modest wine list prettily pasted up with labels, and at the well-stocked full bar at the back of the room, but our attention was snagged right away by the choice of desserts, which included hot apple tarts and Grand Marnier souffles. As two sweet-toothed cousins, we both recalled the motherly command to eat our dinner first. Who could object to beginning with a truffle soup with puff pastry crown? The consummate consomme with a gleaming brown crust and plenty of thick dark truffle slivers, presented on pink napkins shaped artfully like origami--one couldn't launch a meal in better style. A special artichoke soup was delicious and fresh, a green essence of artichokes. The duck terrine (not made on the premises, we learned) was silky and served with a thimbleful of salad with a tantalizing vinaigrette.
While the greater portion of the menu is a la carte, there is also a $13.95 Bistro Menu (a choice of 4 entrees plus soup or salad and creme caramel, chocolate mousse or lemon tart) and a $15.95 Prix-Fixe Menu (choice of 6 entrees plus soup or salad and any of those three desserts). I chose the prawns with lime sauce from the prix-fixe menu; the salad never did manage to arrive. Cousin selected roasted duck in tropical fruit sauce, a la carte.
The prawns, delicately prepared, sweet and tender, were better than I can remember having anywhere in the last year, their suave sauce laced with cream and capers as well as the citron vert . The roasted duck was also properly cooked, the sauce zesty with Grand Marnier, though rather more a l'orange than exotic as the name beguiled.
Eyes no bigger than stomachs now, we ordered two of the simpler desserts. Creme caramel was light and soothing. The lemon tart was frothy, served with a fluted round of thick whipped cream and a dab of apricot jam.
Another evening, however, was entirely erratic. The Pigalle salad with matchstick carrots, iceberg lettuce, a few French string beans, the very tiniest bit of asparagus and one dense hard-boiled quail egg can only be called naive. A cream of asparagus soup was pleasant but less verdant than it might have been.
Service was still unfailingly polite--but a bit offhand, especially on such a slow night. No fresh pepper was offered, nor were water glasses refilled. Hot rolls were brittle and we even got the feeling that the waiter would rather we not order the hot made-to-order desserts.
Yet the main offerings were just fine. The tournedos Pigalle was thick and juicy, arriving as requested, medium rare. It was bursting with goose pate and bathed in a fragrant, rich, dark truffle sauce, one of those truly wine-dark seas. Crisp roast potatoes were a superior accompaniment.
Scallops, large shrimp and mussels, served with fresh pasta, were as sweet as they could be. Perhaps that's why I found the sweetish sauce redundant.
Finally to those grand desserts. They were worth waiting for. The hot apple tart, a light puff pastry, was laden with thin slivers of fruit. The kitchen was out of Grand Marnier, so we easily agreed to an Amaretto souffle. It was an elegant contrast in tastes: the base soft, eggy and warm, the Amaretto cream poured at the table through the steaming and frangible crust. A pleasing way to conclude an uneven meal. Pigalle is a more modest than chic "Paree," but a sophisticated cousin (or farmer's daughter) could reasonably enjoy an urbane meal.
Pigalle, 119 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 930-1883. Lunch, Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday-Saturday, 5:30-9:30 p.m. Bistro Menu available Monday-Thursday all evening and Friday-Saturday from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Closed Sundays. All major credit cards. Parking lot and street parking. Dinner for two (food only): $28-$60.