It's an early night at Michel Richard, as they will tell you when you phone for a reservation. "We stop at nine," says a lilting French accent so unequivocally that you think you are back in Paris fighting with the maitre d' for a prime-time reservation at Tour D'Argent.
"Too bad," you'll feel like saying, but don't. Go before 9 p.m., for heaven's sake. It's worth it. You will be transported to Paris immediately, cigarette smoke billowing (mostly when French chefs from around town arrive after 9), abrupt waiters who know their business, food you'd think is prepared in Paris and dropped in. The works.
I love it.
It reminds me of those small neighborhood cafes in Paris where the locals take pleasure in gathering around a large table with friends or family, or make a point of showing up when specials like bouillabaisse, paella or couscous Parisienne are on the menu.
The paella (French, not Spanish-style), for instance, is presented as a full meal with soup or salad, dessert and coffee and came in a huge rectangular dish positively loaded with mussels, clams, prawns, halibut and sausage. The saffron rice is perfection. One could hardly eat it all, but one does.
Then there is the couscous, one of the best I've had around town. This version of the North African staple is Parisian, a sort of combination Tunisian-Algerian-Moroccan style typical of those rickety, hidden-alley places in Paris, where exotic North African spices assault the sinuses instantly. It too is served as a full meal, starting with a parade of North African salads (cucumber, carrot, beet) as appetizers before the heaping plate of couscous topped with chunks of lamb arrives. Couscous at Michel Richard's may also come with fish, beef or chicken. The broth, which is ladled onto the couscous to taste, is of course served separately and the red-hot sauce, called harrissa, is added sparingly for extra zip. Harrissa is as potent as Mexican hot sauce so a few specks of the paste will suffice.
We also managed to stumble into Michel Richard's on the day bouillabaisse was being served. What a dish! And it is served the way it's done on the Cote d'Azur, with seafood separate from the tureen of soup, and with rouille, the red sauce you spread on the bread or add to the soup.
It is also truly charming to watch the camaraderie among groups of French-speaking diners who always seem to populate Michel Richard. In my book, even dreaded cigarette smoke can be tolerated in such a warm, inviting atmosphere.
Michel Richard began as a pastry shop, to which a charcuterie was added by the previous owner, Michel Richard, who now is part owner of Citrus, a highly acclaimed restaurant on Melrose Avenue. Michel Richard, the charcuterie-patisserie, is now operated by part-owners Richard, Hughette Coffyn--a vivacious, charming blonde who mans the front--and her husband, Andre, who does the cooking.
The standard menu at the Michel Richard still carries all the things you'd expect of a charcuterie-- the pate maison of many varieties, le plateau de charcuterie, which is a sampling of pates, dry and fresh sausages and terrines. There is a magnificently authentic salade Nicoise (tuna, potatoes and green beans) and a Caesar salad I'd never before beheld. This one has a toad-in-the-hole smack center over the greens and it's divine. The crusty-toasty French bread with the cooked-on egg in the center is a kick. It could be a complete lunch in itself, and for many it is.
There are several types of quiches starting with the classic Quiche Lorraine and its variations made with leek and spinach, and the wonderful Tourte Milanaise , the classic ham, cheese and spinach layered torte.
There are hot pastas and cold pasta salads that make fine lunch or light supper dishes to go or eat in, but that's not why you would go to Michel Richard. I like going for the skirt steak with shallot sauce or the rib-eye steak with French fries that is particularly rewarding at the end of a grinding week. Ask for medium-well-done steak and you get rare, as you would in France. Ask for rare and you get blood rare. So specify precisely how you want the steak prepared. The roasted chicken with fresh tarragon is like mamman's somewhere in Provencale, and there is chicken feuillete (chicken in puff pastry) that is also superb and very fresh. The freshness of the ingredients and the care in preparation is what makes these standard dishes special.
There is grilled seafood, such as salmon, scallops, whitefish and shrimps, served with a sauce of your choice and two fresh, steamed vegetables worth every penny of $10.50 to $13.95. Don't, if you can help it--even if you order it as an extra side dish--miss the French fries. They're heavenly. Light as a feather, every one.
You can end the meal with a sampling of French cheeses the way the French love to do, or go for the fabulous desserts, changed daily, from the extraordinary pastry shop section of the restaurant. There isn't a thing on the dessert menu I wouldn't recommend. Dessert, and cafe au lait, espresso or cappuccino, and your day is made.
Michel Richard, 310 S. Robertson Blvd. (3rd Street), Los Angeles; (213) 275-5707 . Also at 12321 Ventura Blvd. (between Whitsett Avenue and Laurel Canyon Boulevard), Studio City; (818) 508-9977. Open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday for breakfast, lunch and early dinner. Visa, MasterCard and Diner's Club credit cards accepted. No reservations. Parking on the street. Wine and beer available. Split order is $1.50 extra. Average lunch $10; average dinner $15.