Gentrification does not come in on little cat feet but on Aprica strollers wheeled by Calvin Kleins. Yet even as lime-green golf pants and brake repair shops bite the dust, one thing remains the same. Encountering the avant-garde is fine for a night on the town, but Old Guard and yuppie want something haimish (unpretentious and cozy) when they frequent a neighborhood restaurant. That's the readout from Santa Monica's Montana Avenue.
Le Petit Moulin, an example of the Old Guard, opened in 1962. It has weathered the pinkification at one end of the street. Ronnie Bourgue, the son of the original owner, took over the business in 1985 and presides with a healthy respect for the past.
"Our customers want to come back and eat exactly what they had before," he said. "We try to fulfill this desire for them."
Bourgue fils , who has been hanging out at the restaurant since he was knee-high to an escargot, looks around the cozy room and recognizes every person there, pointing out several who have been dining on the onion soup, chocolate mousse and duck a l'orange for 24 straight years.
But this is not an exclusive club; newcomers are welcomed heartily and taken right into the fold. (The American-born Bourgue greets guests and recites the specials with the cadence of W.C. Fields.) Le Petit Moulin is a French-American restaurant d'un certain age. Think of it as a Smithsonian diorama come alive. You'll recognize the copper pots, bric-a-brac and painted plates on the walls.
You'll also recognize the victuals on the menu (stuffed mushrooms fines herbes , lapin , creme caramel), and, I think, the care with which most are made. Bourgue isn't a preservationist, though; he's studded the menu with lots of fresh fish and thrown in a couple of newer ideas, and he regularly prepares meals without salt or fat. On both occasions we were there, the restaurant was noisy and packed.
Pate, made on the premises, was fresh and wild, while thick, sweet onion soup was crusted with real Gruyere. The generic escargots in ceramic shells were supported by the Moulin's good bread. Stuffed artichoke hearts had no taste. Hot spinach salad came lushly dressed with vodka and Canadian bacon. (I'd go back just for that.)
You would recognize the entrees in your sleep. Fresh mahi-mahi came crusted with lemon and almonds, rack of lamb was properly pink, with a traditional dark herbed reduction on the side. Salmon, whitefish and sole steamed in parchment were very bland but pleased the dieter in our group. Leaving the orange dressing to the older clientele, I welcomed the pear chunks in pear brandy sauce accompanying the juicy, crispy duck.
For dessert, the standard caramel custard and rich chocolate mousse are above par, as was a marshmallowy sabayon served with fresh raspberries. Plus ca change, and all that.
You might think that Louise's, a new bright, mirrored Italian trattoria a few blocks up the street, would be another kettle of fish. Although the cuisine--and the ethos--are completely different from the Moulin, something's curiously the same.
The crowd is younger (lots of Calvin Kleined daddies nudging focaccia into small-fry mouths), and the small room is equally packed. But in this case, no reservations are taken, and you find yourself waiting (especially on weekend evenings) for a good 40 minutes outside. While I think Louise's has swell pizza and the best roast chicken-to-go on Montana, I simply won't wait again for such pedestrian fare.
Frankly, I think it's the location and the camaraderie of this ear-splitting joint that make it such a popular place. (A friend told me it's perfect for her 3-year-old. It's so noisy, carrying on doesn't count. And who wants to schlepp down to Wilshire with the kids?)
But, oh yes, the food.
The regular pizzas and their lighter "California" incarnations come with all kinds of classic and yuppie accouterments, and they are just fine. Several cold salads in the case are good, too. I particularly liked the marinated green beans and the porcini mushroomed saffron rice. The watery Caesar salad was about the worst I've had. A tagliatelle with pesto and bay scallops was gracefully sauced but the scallops were in short supply. Ditto on the amount of goat cheese served in another pasta dish.
A deep lemony chicken and grilled swordfish were competent but I think I'll stick with the roast chicken and pizza to go. The bread is cottony, the service crew is understaffed and the desserts--all proudly announced as being made on the premises--aren't worth walking around the corner for. Louise's looks kind of hip in its lean, clean way but you'd recognize the food in another wing of that culinary Smithsonian.
Louise's Trattoria, 1008 Montana Ave., Santa Monica, (213) 394-8888. Open for lunch and dinner every day. MasterCard and Visa. Dinner for two (food only) $12.50-$42.
Le Petit Moulin, 714 Montana Avenue, Santa Monica, (213) 395-6619. Open Monday-Saturday, 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Reservations suggested. MC and Visa. Dinner for two: (food only) $30-$65.