Would that every neighborhood could have access to a bistro that is as personable and unpretentious, yet serious about food, as Louis XIV.
The site on La Brea Avenue near Melrose was formerly occupied by an engaging little restaurant called Options. That restaurant's bright contemporary look has been reworked into low-budget medieval French. This encompasses a rather murky simulation of sun-splashed walls, a classical nude painted on one wall and a long wooden refectory table that could have been plucked from some monastery or castle. There is a bohemian aspect too in tables covered with white butcher paper, perhaps to facilitate an inspired sketch, but definitely to save on laundry bills, and in the staff, clad in informal blacks like old-time Apache dancers.
Their accents are delightfully French, and so is the food, with overtones of California modernity. Chef Norbert Juhasz, who is from Lyon, was perhaps too offhand when he dismissed his menu as "nothing fancy." There are wonderful soups, served in big plates and accompanied by good bread with real crust, obtained from some outside baker. A sunny, cheerful tomato soup banished my recollections of this dish as something dull, salty and sweet. A mixed vegetable soup with a potato base was equally pleasing.
The simple house salad--contemporary greens with garlic-laced vinaigrette--was just as good as a more ambitious plate of baby lettuce dressed up with a grilled oyster mushroom (much improved by the toasting), grilled tomato slice and mint-seasoned lamb strips.
One night, the restaurant experimented with a new appetizer, Belgian endive served steamy hot in a bechamel sauce with ham and Gruyere cheese. I'm glad I was there. A warm red cabbage salad with chicken and a plate of marinated red peppers topped with anchovy fillets were also well-done.
Entrees range from a modest little steak with very good, finely cut pommes frites (French fries) to grilled filet mignon with a heady cepe- flavored brown sauce. Other choices include rack of lamb Provencale (with parsley, garlic and bread crumbs), chicken Dijonnais (with mustard sauce), some seafood and a couple of pasta dishes including very good fettuccine with pesto. I liked the entrecote a la Madagaskar (with green peppercorn sauce) more than the higher-priced filet mignon, enjoyed the rack of lamb and was excited to discover that boeuf Bourguignonne had been simmering in the kitchen one cold night. The stew was not to my taste, however, because I'm not fond of thickened sauces. They remind me of pasty turkey gravy and heavy cafeteria food.
The only real disasters that I ran into were soft, mushy, sandy shrimp that wasted a nice tomato-ginger sauce and potatoes that were nicely carved but too undercooked to eat. These kitchen mistakes are the exceptions, and I'm sure if I had mentioned the shrimp they would have been replaced by another dish.
Rather than dwelling on these shortcomings, one can concentrate on such nice touches as the vegetables that accompany the entrees, among them pureed carrots carefully arranged in steps so that, in the dim light, they resemble slices. A rather rustic tarte tatin was flanked by little balls of excellent vanilla ice cream. And whipped cream was piped into a little flower and fitted out with mint leaves to ornament a pear tart. Desserts vary except for such regulars as chocolate mousse and creme caramel. My favorite was a brilliantly flavored orange tart, the thick orange custard accented with tiny bits of peel.
Louis XIV was opened five months ago by Isabelle Li and Jean Louis Bartoli. She is from Lyon and he from Aix-en-Provence. Juhasz, the chef, is Isabelle's brother, and their mother, Dina Valette, is responsible for the assortment of scrumptious tarts.
Louis XIV, 606 N. La Brea Ave, Los Angeles. Call (213) 934-5102 for reservations. Open from 6 p.m. to midnight Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. Takes American Express. Park on street. Sample price: steak with pommes frites, $9.50; grilled filet mignon, $17.50; entrecote a la Madagaskar, $12.50; rack of lamb Provencale, $13.50, salad with oyster mushroom, tomato and lamb, $6.50.