I've spent some very enchanted evenings at Au Fontainebleau in West Los Angeles. The room impresses at once with its quiet elegance. Gilt-framed scenes of Paris, ornate chandeliers, mirrors and a profusion of greenery create an ambiance far removed from contemporary California high-tech. One dreams of Paris at the turn of the century, whatever that was like, or a romantic New Year's Eve. It's quite a contrast to the plebeian stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard outside.
Owner-chef Jean-Henri Hubert came here from Paris, where he had a restaurant named La Campagne, and opened Au Fontainebleau two years ago. Hubert's father was Corsican and his mother Vietnamese. Accordingly, he has divided the menu into a French side and an "exotic" side that offers his interpretation of Vietnamese and other Asian dishes.
If the waiter suggests a first course, it is not to enlarge the dinner bill, but to allow Hubert time to prepare the main dish. Rather than cooking in advance to ease his work, Hubert makes his sauces to order. And they can be wonderful. I remember the spicy-sweet tomato mixture that was served over grilled white fish, so simple yet exquisite in flavor. The fish, garnished further with minced garlic and cilantro, came from the exotic portion of the menu.
A French dish that has been offered as a dinner special is filet mignon flamed with Cognac and served with a creamy, Cognac-flavored black pepper sauce. That, too, was wonderful. And so were the langoustines in Port wine, the salmon with bearnaise sauce and the salade forestiere a la tartare (steak tartare on a bed of lettuce with an intense sauce tasting of cumin and cayenne pepper).
Although I tried additional French dishes, I found it hard to deviate from the "exotic" menu and such attractions as succulent five-spices beef brochette sprinkled with chopped peanuts and served with Vietnamese-style sweet-sour dipping sauce. Other exotics include Vietnamese spring rolls stuffed with crab and shrimp; ginger-flavored beef teriyaki and Javanese chicken with pineapple sauce.
Au Fontainebleau misses occasionally. A lobster was tough. Too much cayenne pepper drowned the saffron in the sauce for langouste a la Belle Aurore. A French onion soup was too bready. But such lapses are not typical and standards are high. Hubert insists on freshness. When I asked for asparagus crab soup, I was advised to order something else, for asparagus was not yet in season and the soup would have to be made with the canned vegetable. Later, in the proper season, the soup with its splash of Cognac was very good.
Large Crepe Suzette
I saw the chef only once, when he emerged to prepare and flame a single large crepe Suzette at the table. Flan and a very rich chocolate mousse are the desserts that go with set dinners.
The tables are set with starchy white napery, elegant glassware and other trappings that make one expect good food. Butter is molded into little Japanese dishes. Rolls are hot and crusty. And the service is hushed and meticulous. (A knife inadvertently dunked in a sauce by one customer was carried away in state on a folded napkin.) If the waiters seem to know the food exceptionally well, it is because they are Hubert's sons, Jean-Claude and Patrick. Their mother, Eugenie, who wears Vietnamese dress, is at the cash register.
Dinner can be expensive if one orders a la carte, adds wine, a first course and dessert. However, the set dinners are reasonable, ranging from $15.50 for a shrimp brochette or white fish au gratin with curry sauce to $17.50 for duck with pineapple sauce or filet mignon with Roquefort and black pepper sauce. The prices include soup or salad and dessert.
Au Fontainebleau, 12130 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (213) 826-8177. Lunch Monday through Friday from noon to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday through Saturday from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday from 6 to 10 p.m. Reservations are advised on weekends. Visa, MasterCard and American Express are accepted. There is a parking lot behind the restaurant, but street parking is usually available.