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RESTAURANTS : APRES PARIS: SANTA MONICA : How to Keep 'Em Down on the Farm? Serve French Food in a Tres Rustique Setting.

March 22, 1992|Charles Perry

Once upon a time, Jean-Pierre Peiny was the chef at the Valley's hottest French restaurant, La Serre ("The Greenhouse"). His new place has a clever name: From la greenhouse, he's gone to L.A. Farm.

There's a point to this. L.A. Farm tries for a less hothouse-like style (this is a restaurant where you can get corned beef and cabbage cooked by a French chef)--and does so rather obviously. Your bar stool is a faux -rural chair with ax handles for legs and a back made from the business end of a pitchfork, and if you poke around outside, you'll find distressed-iron cow sculptures and even the odd bale of hay.

And the Farm is located, as it were, in the backwoods of Santa Monica, the Empty Quarter between 26th Street and Centinela Avenue. It's blocks and blocks from the nearest espresso bar or aerobics salon.

Or from the nearest California-cuisine emporium or brick-oven pizzeria, for that matter. As a result, L.A. Farm has become the de facto commissary for the neighborhood's movie and TV contingent, such as Skywalker Sound and the "Northern Exposure" crew, especially at lunch (and breakfast, which is of interest strictly to people who work nearby: just coffee and danish at the display kitchen counter). Despite the bits of whimsical rusticity and a semiprivate dining room decorated with wine racks, L.A. Farm has the feeling of a neighborhood place--in a working show-biz neighborhood.

It's a somewhat eclectic farm, for better or worse. You can start a meal with spicy Thai shrimp, though they aren't quite as Thai as they might be. In fact, they're a whole lot like the plain fried shrimp traditionally served on beach-town piers, a little on the mushy side, but they do come with a broodingly hot Southeast Asian pepper paste on the side.

If you want to see the Farm at its best at appetizer time, stick to the French--or nearly French--stuff. The warm leek salad is excellent, rather like the braised leeks you get in New Orleans restaurants, only with balsamic vinegar and little, if any, hot pepper. They have a luscious texture and a satisfying leekiness.

"Potato waffle" sounds like California cuisine at its most reckless, but it's actually pretty good, though the center remains a little pasty. You tend to overlook that, though, because of the warm, tangy Brie sauce. (Yes, we're talking about a potato waffle with French cheese sauce.) The same holds for goat-cheese custard, which lacks the horrifying qualities you might expect because the non-sweet custard tames the goatiness of the cheese.

Surprisingly, after these quasi-French appetizers, pastas dominate the list of entrees. Chicken ravioli with tomato sauce is one you might overlook--it has a bland name that gives no hint of the satiny qualities of the pasta, the intriguing suggestion of tarragon in the chicken filling or the creamy tomato sauce--gentle and naive, like Chef Boy-Ar-Dee spaghetti sauce without all the sugar.

On special there's been another terrific pasta: farfalle with peas, corn and pancetta in cream sauce. You could think of it as an angelic cousin to pasta puttanesca. (On the other hand, I wouldn't go near the pasta with an avocado sauce. Avocado turns loathsome when heated.)

By contrast, the entrees that sound most French are not very exciting. The coq au vin is by the book: chicken, pearl onions, potatoes, bacon and wine. Too bad restaurants in this country don't get the really tough, really flavorful roosters needed for this dish. But at least the coq au vin beats the pants off the pot-au-feu --not the kind of long-simmered stew gourmets once raved about, but a plain boiled chicken with carrots, leeks and new potatoes that definitely were not cooked in the pot with the chicken but added at serving time.

The neatnik, Frenchified version of corned beef and cabbage easily beats either of those. The meat--carefully trimmed of fat--is laid on a wad of perfectly cooked cabbage in a wine sauce with little bits of salt pork floating in it. On the side come small pots of yellow mustard, whole-seed mustard with a rich, winy flavor and sharp horseradish.

On the other hand, the Frenchified pizza is a bizarre misapprehension. The crust is neither thin nor puffy, but solid, like white bread with a rather dense crumb. Try again, Jean-Pierre.

You can't go wrong with plainer meat dishes, though, such as the daily rotisserie choices: say, a mixed grill of chicken, duck, garlicky lamb and rich Cajun sausage with an understated peppery bite. On special there might be a good venison chop, a huge one floating in red wine sauce and topped with chanterelle mushrooms.

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