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Tiptoeing Through Tulipe : Where French food may start low-cost revolution

June 04, 1989|RUTH REICHL

Tulipe, 8360 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 655-7400. Open for lunch Monday-Friday; for dinner Monday-Saturday. Beer and wine. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $46-$64.

How can you tell when a critic really likes a restaurant? Count the times she eats there.

A critic will go anywhere once. Most will offer all but the most hopeless cases a second chance. The third visit is the critical one, the time to check for consistency, catch up on details and make sure that no dishes have managed to escape the test of the tongue. If the menu is very long, a fourth visit may be necessary. But there can only be one reason for a fifth visit to a restaurant: the sheer fun of eating the food.

I went to Tulipe five times.

The first time the restaurant was no more than a few days old, and we were just about the only people in the place. It's not a room you want to be alone in; with everybody in the open kitchen staring at our table we found ourselves lowering our voices until we were whispering across it. It's nice to watch chef/owners Roland Gibert and Maurice Peguet as they work, but sometimes it's not so nice to have them watch you as you eat.

"Maybe we should ask them to turn the lights down," I whispered. Even when the restaurant's full, a little less light in this matter of fact room wouldn't hurt. Who ever heard of a French restaurant without a scrap of romance?

"I don't mind the light," said my guest, taking out her reading glasses. "It's rare to have so much light in a restaurant that you are actually able to read the menu." She perused the descriptions of the dishes, looked up startled and said, "Do I need new glasses? Is this entree really only $14?"

I looked. It was. Appetizers start at $4.50, entrees at $14, desserts are $4.50 and no dish tops $19. You could actually eat three courses here without spending $25.

"These chefs must be attempting to prove that good French food need not cost a lot of money," I said.

"It's about time," she replied. "French restaurants have gotten so expensive that all I ever go out to eat these days is pasta." She is not alone. Recent history has shown that while Los Angeles eaters are eager to spend their money in moderately priced restaurants, they are increasingly reluctant to go out for triple-digit dinners. That's one reason why Italian restaurants are opening faster than French ones, but now a couple of chefs have figured out a way to serve good French food at reasonable prices. Gibert and Peguet are making imaginative dishes that rely neither on the expensive labor-intensive sauces that are the basis of cuisine classique nor the chichi cliches of cuisine nouvelle.

The result is a menu so seductive sounding that on that first visit we had a very hard time deciding what to eat. I have since learned that the warm appetizers are generally better than the cold ones, the meat and fowl dishes more satisfying than the fish. But on that first evening we were lucky--everything we ate was wonderful.

"I can't pronounce this," said my friend, trying to twist her tongue around petit pithiviers a la Fourme d'Ambert et aux poires and finally pointing to it as she ordered. She took one bite, eagerly ate the warm savory pastry filled with blue cheese and pears and swore that she would learn to say the words. "I want to be able to say it correctly the next time that I order it," she said. "It's just too bad that this salad that comes on the side is so salty."

The salad was salty--but the pithiviers was every bit as good as she said it was. My appetizer was even better. Daube de canard, duck braised in wine, was chilled and served in slices along with shimmering scoops of its own jellied juices, tiny onions and baby carrots. It was a robust dish-- cuisine bourgeoise with a touch of sophistication.

Next I had grilled scallops on a bed of caramelized shallots. The shallots changed the character of the scallops, giving them an almost aggressive edge. But my friend ordered the dish that has subsequently become my favorite on the menu-- rouelle de veau aux petits legumes printaniers et au chou crouquant. It's really a wonderful braised veal shank that has all the good characteristics of osso buco (the marrow), and none of its drawbacks (the tough meat). The meat had been cooked until it fell off the bone into a sauce rich with meat and vegetable juices. It's a hearty dish, the sort of thing you wish your mother used to cook.

"I'm not expecting much for dessert," said my friend. "This just doesn't seem like a dessert place." When her apple tart arrived she looked down at the flat square on the plate and shrugged. "I told you," she said. Then she tasted it and gasped; it was a rich and appley tart, a sophisticated little square sitting smugly in a sauce made of cream and Calvados. Don't miss it.

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