Like any world-class port, Long Beach has an atmosphere worthy of Jim Thompson, the Raymond Chandler of the '90s. Look at Pine Avenue, a street currently threatening to become the restaurant row of the South Bay, thanks to excellent restaurants such as Pine Avenue Fish House and L'Opera.
A variety of shops and restaurants have sprung up here in recent years, and the avenue is abuzz with activity during the day.
But at night . . . at night, an eerie transformation takes place. The street fills with shadows. There's barely a soul in sight. Image-makers, you've got a problem; a lot of people, it's obvious, just don't feel comfortable about coming down here for dinner.
Amis hopes to change that. It's an authentic French bistro, and a natural for Pine Avenue. The chef and crew come from Magdalena's in Bellflower, a restaurant that has managed to flourish in a modest residential area, so a challenging location is, at least, nothing these people haven't encountered before.
It doesn't hurt to be visually stunning, either. The dining area is on two levels, a lofty mezzanine and a grandiose ground floor. A high industrial ceiling and several neoclassical twists add dramatic effect.
Chef Steve White of Magdalena's, who spent three years at the fabulous L'Archestrate in Paris, created most of the recipes. The main cooking chores are handled by White's brother and longtime assistant, Carlos.
The Whites call their food "rustic French," by which they mean humbler versions of the complex, often heavy French classics you can find at Magdalena's. Personally, I think this food could stand a little more humility.
You get the idea as soon as you walk in. The pastry table is next to the front door, a sumptuous spread of tortes and cakes ornamented with ganache, huge whole nutmeats and thick frostings. So you literally reel to your table.
You are met immediately with a basket of breads: Roquefort brioche, an orange-colored herbal bread and a dense country loaf. Watch your step here. These are some of the most filling breads I've ever had in a restaurant.
In general, I'd advise looking for lightness on this menu. Even salads can play havoc with modest appetites here.
A delicious warm goat cheese salad with the lofty name salade d'hiver au fromage de chevre tiede tosses chicory, red oak-leaf lettuce and arugula together with a magnificent walnut oil vinaigrette in a massive mound topped with man-size rounds of toast smeared with oven-baked California goat cheese. You should be delighted with it, but don't expect to be hungry when you finish.
A classic such as Maine lobster salad, with new potato, celery root and a spicy balsamic dressing, is similarly overwhelming.
The appetizers do have their moments. I fell in love with the flamiche aux poireaux, for instance: a leek quiche with one of the airiest fillings I've ever had. Mouclade --steamed eastern mussels--is a little on the filling side, but the broth is perfectly infused with cream, white wine and herbs.
I don't much care for the restaurant's lamb salad with lentils, though, despite thick slices of fantastic wood-smoked lamb. As for the saucisse en chemise-- "spicy" sausage wrapped in pastry with Maui onion and Dijon mustard--it's a lightweight . . . but only in the flavor sense.
The lunch and dinner menus differ only with regard to entrees. At lunchtime, you find farmhouse fare, such as broiled chicken with good French fries ( petite bouillabaisse) or bean casserole with duck confit, assorted sausages and a crumb crust ( cassoulet Toulousaine) .
Dinner is more for the aristocrat. That astonishing smoked lamb comes in three chops cut from a rack, served with an unctuous red wine sauce. Filet mignon with morels has unimpeachable credentials (superb Angus filet and American morels), but you only get three morels on the plate, a major disappointment.
Sensible entree choices include rabbit sauteed with chestnuts, roasted poussin (baby chicken) with herbs and a thick pave of veal in tarragon sauce.
All of the desserts are rich and creamy, my favorite being the one they call chocolate caramel cashew torte. Meditate on that name; need I say more?
Incidentally, the wine list is excellent, filled with low-priced wines from the Rhone, Rhone-style California wines (such as the excellent Bonny Doon wines from Santa Cruz county), and a great California selection, all at bargain prices.
Amis is moderate to expensive. Soups and salads are $2.95 to $8.95. Hors d'oeuvres are $5 to $9.50. Lunch entrees are $8.50 to $13.50. Dinner entrees are $13.95 to $18.95.
217 Pine Ave., Long Beach.
Lunch 11 a.m. through 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5 through 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard and Visa accepted.