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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Sauvignon: Small Secret in Santa Monica

February 05, 1988|CHARLES PERRY

Nobody seems to know about Sauvignon. Pity; it's a nice little spot.

A lot of people knew about the old Au Chambertin, which was run by the same talented Vietnamese family about a dozen blocks away, but somehow you can go to dinner at Sauvignon on a Thursday and find you just about have the place to yourself. And as early as 7:30 in the evening, the highly professional waiters may apologize that most of the seafood dishes on the menu are not exactly available, which has the ominous sound of diminished expectations at shopping time. The lack of a parking valet in this high-density area also suggests they're not expecting crowds.

True, the location--Santa Monica Boulevard, just a few steps from the Santa Monica Mall--is not quite where I'd stick a courtly and old-fashioned French restaurant, though it certainly is a charming little room (definitely little: about a dozen tables).

The typical Sauvignon sauce is thick and buttery and enriched with garlic and/or ground onions. The most appealing version is the understated lime ginger sauce that comes on prawns, available either as an appetizer or an entree, but something of the sort seems to show up on half the things on the menu. Strongly flavored with tarragon, it's on the three-chop rack of lamb; mixed with fresh slices of raw mushroom, it's on an appetizer of mussels and vermicelli. On the warm duck salad, it's a mustard sauce, and with the mixed seafood with pasta, it's full of saffron. They get an amazing variety out of this basic sauce. Veal with lime sauce, on the other hand, has very little in common with the prawns with lime ginger sauce, its predominant flavor being browned onions.

There are a lot of old-fashioned things here (like braised beef on the lunch menu), but there are also some oddities. Salmon in Champagne sauce with rose caviar works better than I'd have supposed, though I have a feeling the inspiration had more to do with the pretty pink color scheme than the combination of fish with the rich and faintly bitter flavor of salmon roe.

One night I ordered artichoke soup and a pasta salad with salmon and asparagus, and the soup turned out to be cream of asparagus while the salad came with green beans. I had the eerie fantasy that they'd run out of artichokes so they used the asparagus in the soup, but whatever the reason, the soup was a great, buttery, old-fashioned cream of asparagus. The salad turned out to be light and fresh tasting, a simple pile of vermicelli mixed with vinaigrette topped with smoky salmon and surrounded by green beans.

Desserts are by no means a specialty at Sauvignon. I've never seen more than four desserts offered, the best of them being a raspberry "cake" more or less like strawberry Bavarian cream with a bit of crust in rather sweet raspberry sauce. There's also a creme caramel, with the flavor emphasis on caramel rather than cream, a tiny, very sour lemon tart with a little bit of pureed mandarin orange, and a cocoa-flavored chocolate mousse.

Unusual for a French restaurant, but in the tradition of Au Chambertin, Sauvignon offers a prix-fixe dinner, and an even cheaper early-bird Sunset Dinner. These are perfectly good dinners, though the entrees aren't as rich as the ones on the regular menu. The osso buco is quite pleasant, a big veal knuckle in tomato and white wine sauce without the eternal accompaniment of risotto, and the light and fluffy whitefish comes in a simple sauce of sweet cream and green onions.

Sauvignon, 307 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica. (213) 394-3311. Open for lunch Monday through Friday, for dinner Monday through Saturday. Wine only. Street parking. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two $40 to $63. Prix-fixe dinners for one, including soup or salad and dessert, is $17.95. The Sunset Dinners (5 to 7 p.m.) are $10.95.

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