East-West eating is no longer a novelty. But still, it seems unusual to find a French restaurant in Chinatown, especially in the less traveled stretch of markets, shops and eating places along North Spring Street.
But there it is, brand new green and white awning smartly announcing a brand new restaurant, La Cigale. Cigale is French for cicada, and straw versions of the insect cling to plastic greenery climbing over latticework inside. At lunchtime, the restaurant is largely empty. Possibly dishes such as entrecote au poivre vert, coquille Saint Jacques, crabe farci and omelette flambee au rhum are a bit too foreign for the street. So a separate menu of Vietnamese dishes was added recently.
It surprised me to see chicken rice on the original menu because this dish has no link to France. It is a specialty of the Chinese from Hainan island and is as basic to Singapore as chicken soup is to a Jewish community. The usual components are chicken meat, dipping sauces, a bowl of broth and rice sauteed in chicken fat and steamed in broth.
Some dishes have a distinctly Vietnamese interpretation. Haricots verts sautes au beurre (green beans sauteed in butter) appeared to be sauteed in oil, not butter, and were embellished with bits of crisp, brown, fried garlic. Filet de boeuf grille, sauce moutarde, (grilled beef fillet) had the crunchiness that goes with fried meat, and the waiter said it had indeed been fried in butter with garlic. Whatever the method, it was a nice, tender piece of meat cooked to perfect, medium rare pinkness.
The French approach was apparent in curried shrimp because the sauce was so delicate. I don't know, though, if a French chef would have decorated the bowl-shaped heap of rice in the center of the plate with a cherry.
The entrecote au poivre vert (green peppercorn steak) came on a black iron sizzling plate shaped like a steer. The plate was so hot that it was vital to eat the meat and sauce at once before they scorched. Pommes frites (French fries) go with this dish.
I haven't tried the chateaubriand, but the kitchen turns out an excellent grilled pork chop. It's on the French side of the menu, accompanied by salad and a French roll and also appears on some of the Vietnamese combinations.
One of the nicest dishes is a simple presentation of filet de sole frit au capres (fried sole with capers). The two small, moist, tender fillets were garnished with lemon slices and, of course, capers. The only accompaniment was broccoli, still brilliantly green and firm to the bite.
The classic French onion soup is a bit thin here, topped with dollops of bread and cheese instead of the usual sturdy, solid cap. I thought it would be clever to compose a lunch of the French soup and one Vietnamese dish. An unexpectedly good companion was a shrimp and salad roll--shrimp, lettuce, mint and rice noodles inside a soft, almost translucent rice wrapper.
There is often danger in translating literally a language with which one is not thoroughly familiar. The sauce mangue (mango sauce) for the shrimp curry was mango chutney, not some artful French sauce. And jus de pomme cannelle was not apple juice (jus de pomme) flavored with cinnamon (cannelle) but a thick white guanabana shake. Guanabana is also known as soursop.
This and other Vietnamese-style drinks are sweet enough for dessert. The formal desserts are flan, which has a surprising topping--cracked ice--and the flaming, rum-bathed omelet.
Glasses of hot tea come with meals. There is also strong, filtered coffee, served black or Vietnamese-style with sweetened condensed milk. A thermos of hot water lets you dilute the brew to taste.
La Cigale's owner is Kim Le, who once had a French restaurant in Saigon. At $15, lobster thermidor is the top-priced dish. The green peppercorn steak is $8.25. The fried sole is $7.25. A plate of three shrimp and salad rolls is $3.95, and most of the sweet drinks are $1.75.
La Cigale, 685 N. Spring St., Los Angeles (213) 620-1572. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Cash only. Validated parking in the Crystal Plaza garage. Enter on New High Street.