This is the story of a woman with a mission. For more than 20 years, a French biologist-pharmacist supervised a laboratory just outside Paris. One of her daughters ran a spa where clients came to take sea water cures. Could maman come up with a regime to satisfy the clientele's longing for both cuisine and couture .
The passionate Frenchwoman, Christiana des Sagettes, turned to her books and laboratory and began investigating cooking sans gras, without fat. As her interest grew, she decided to open a restaurant. "Where are people most interested in health?" she wondered. La Californie. The product of her research, Christiana de Montafon, recently opened in Santa Monica.
In a few weeks, when Mme. des Sagettes has completed programming her computer, customers will be able to walk out with their computerized calorie count along with their bill. Is such a restaurant futuristically designed like a laboratory? Not at all.
Stepping off downtown 2nd Street, one enters a rather surreal world, a cross between a movie set and a furniture store. Gargantuan lace-covered tables are set with heavy flatware and a profusion of large cabbage rose-patterned china. The large and airy room is hung with great swoopy pink moire drapes, the decor ranges from Baroque golden mirrors to a bank of fluorescent lights. Some of the arms of the antiqued French provincial chairs curve into swan's heads while a great stuffed stag's head is mounted high on a rear wall. Classical music gently fills the room. What about the "Exquisite French Low Calorie Cuisine"?
Dinner started off pleasantly. We later learned we went straight for the most caloric dish on the menu: a rich avocado mousse served with a good deal of fine smoked salmon and three kinds of dressings on the side: a fresh tomato puree, a mustard mayonnaise and a yogurt-based Thousand Island dressing. Quite pleasing--too bad the bread was brittle from the microwave.
We also enjoyed the simple tomato soup that was emboldened by a sensuous basil pistou, made, to my astonishment, without any oil. Another day the warm vichyssoise was delicately textured while the mussel soup was a weak broth with scarcely any mussels.
Marvelous hot oysters on the half-shell came glazed with a luxurious creamy Champagne sauce. "But this can't be low calorie," we said, about to learn our first lesson of the day. Cream, it turns out, is half the calories of butter. (I looked it up when I got home. One tablespoon of butter is 100 calories while the equivalent amount of whipping cream is only 55.) And besides, the sauce is mostly potent fish stock and the champagne's calories burn off when heated up. Et voila. A nicely textured vegetable terrine was made with Gruyere and eggs, without any additional fat.
The kitchen harbors a vacuum packing contraption which enables vitamins to be locked in before the dish is steamed. (The restaurant cuts calories by steaming many foods.) The very sweet staff is happy to show you how this works. While it claims the process enhances flavors, I'm not quite convinced. Our duck was stringy, while the orange sauce was sublime. A delicate truffle and leek sauce failed to save a dry chicken breast. I enjoyed being able to try both a light cream sauce and a sunny mango puree with the steamed lobster but thought, once again, the steaming simply toughened the lobster meat.
At the moment some of the dishes feel a bit experimental--as though the kinks were still being worked out. A dense chocolate charlotte made with Equal was interesting although the substitution of bread for ladyfinger edging was crude. I'd like to taste the difference between the "real" and the "faux" creme brulee --but they weren't being served the days I was there.
The most arresting thing about Christiana de Montafon is the fact that the owners really want to know about their customers' dietary desires and needs. When the computer is set up people will actually be able to come in and say "I'd like a 500-calorie meal" or "Please make my meal without any salt." Christiana de Montafon will go so far as to plan personal menus for interested diners for an entire week; they will even prepare them to take out. This is in a sense couture cooking rather than pret - a - porter.
Mme. de Sagettes has just finished writing a book, "La Chasse aux Calories." Actually, she is, herself, a walking volume. If you're tired of dieting on raw vegetables and cottage cheese, you might enjoy this change of pace.
Christiana de Montafon, 1447 2nd St., Santa Monica. (213) 393-3133. Open every day for lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m., and dinner 6 p.m.-11 p.m. Visa and MasterCard. Lunch salad bar: $2.95. Lunch special: $5.55. Dinner for two, food only, $25-$50.