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RESTAURANTS : A MATTER OF TIME : At Bistro 45, a Convivial Crowd and Great Service Complement an Evolving Menu

June 30, 1991|Ruth Reichl

Bistro 45 is the sort of restaurant that grows on you.

It was at its worst the first time that I went there. Just opened, the restaurant was almost achingly trendy. People stood in the attractive bar, looking longingly at the display of cheeses and clamoring for seats. There was almost always a wait. The waiters had that smug air they take on when they know they have a hit on their hands, and the patrons all looked as if they felt lucky to be blessed with a table. In such an atmosphere, disappointment is almost inevitable.

It was certainly in store for me. I started the meal with something called sushi that turned out to be primarily potatoes. Big rounds of potato were each wrapped with a little bit of raw tuna; it was impossible to eat the dish without feeling cheated.

I liked the stuffed artichoke bottoms even less. The artichokes themselves were small, flavorless and filled with a mousse of spinach and watercress that tasted only of tarragon.

But the real blow was the bouillabaisse. The waitress came to the table carrying a big silver terrine. She stood there proudly holding the thing. Then, very slowly, she opened the top. I gasped. I was looking at a thick, white cream soup filled with fish.

"This," I said to the maitre d', "is not my idea of bouillabaisse. Real bouillabaisse is not white. It is not thick. It is not creamy."

"Ah," he said, smiling a secret little smile, "it says right here on the menu, 'Bistro 45-style.' " Because I was so unhappy, he sent some sherry to the table and some cheese. The latter turned out to be the best thing we ate all night.

A few weeks later, I went back for lunch. The room was even more crowded than before; at 1:30 the only available seats were at the bar. The patrons were well-dressed and looked well-heeled, and a feeling of well-being pervaded the room.

But lunch was only fair. What was supposed to be a salad of duck confit with sauteed potatoes was nice enough--but the duck was merely slices of the breast, certainly not a confit. And when I couldn't resist ordering something called "Chicken tenders with grilled pineapple and peanut sesame sauce," I got exactly what I deserved. Chicken tenders, indeed! The dish looked like something from a 1950s ladies' luncheon.

What I did like was a fairly audacious tart made of Brie and pears. The cheese was ripe, and when paired with the fruit and two spectacular sauces--an impressive caramel and a rich creme anglaise-- the result was a dish whose flavors ricocheted through my mouth.

Nice as it was, though, it wasn't nice enough to make me hurry back.

Four months later, Bistro 45 is quite different. The frantic edge of the first few months has disappeared, leaving in its wake a restaurant with the feel of a real bistro. The customers seem to know one another, the owner, the waiters and the menu. People wander in at all hours--at 10 p.m. they're still coming through the door--sit down and order off the top of their heads. There is a cozy neighborhood feel to the place that makes you wish you lived nearby.

The food has mellowed, too. While the menu still has too many cute quirks for my taste--raspberries and pineapples show up in the entrees just a little too often--you will end up eating a fine, solid meal if you order right.

To begin, you can't do better than the arugula salad with Parmesan shavings and garlic chips. It's a huge pile of beautifully dressed pungent greens, the color nicely set off by a ring of roasted red peppers. The tuna sashimi has disappeared, and in its place is a wonderful tuna tartare: raw fish diced and mixed with green peppercorns, coriander and lime juice, formed into a little diamond and topped with creme fraiche and golden caviar.

The ravioli of the day is not such a sure bet. It's not really ravioli--just two rounds of pasta enclosing a filling that changes at chef Sean Sheridan's whim. One night it was an appealing mixture of sauteed sweetbreads and a very rich sauce. Another night, however, the pasta contained a rather un appealing concoction of lukewarm mussels, crunchy fennel, hard bits of carrot and mushy pieces of eggplant in a creamy saffron sauce.

I'd also shy away from chilled Thai tiger shrimp; the flavors are so tame that the dish would be a lot more comfortable at a church social than in some distant foreign land.

The bouillabaisse, on the other hand, is now far more authentic. The waitress still arrives bearing a big silver terrine, but when she lifts the lid, you find yourself staring at a fine broth filled with seafood. There are huge and beautifully cooked scallops, big shrimps in the shell, salmon, whitefish. . . . On the side is a bowl of potent aioli to ladle over the seafood. It's the sort of dish you can spend hours eating.

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