On my first-ever visit to Paris I arrived at dinner time, checked into my hotel and went walking through the arrondissement , peering into restaurants. I chose a small, cozy bistro. A bistro in Paris! I was in heaven.
The waiter was impatient with me: wonderful! He was supposed to be. I ordered sausage-- boudin blanc --and a salad. The salad was dull. The sausage a bit rank. The bill stiff. The best thing about my meal? Pommes frites. French fries.
I lost a big chunk of innocence in that bistro. Although I eventually had some great bistro food--at extravagant prices--in Paris, I learned to regard the word bistro with the same caution I regard the phrase home-cooked . Bistro food, in concept, is local, homey, hearty, simply presented, moderately priced. But bistro chefs, like moms, are not necessarily great cooks.
Le Petit Bistro on La Cienega looks absolutely terrific. The ceilings are high, recessed, with a bit of the night sky painted into the hollows. Enormous art nouveau posters hang on vast walls. There is the requisite carved dark wood paneling, beautiful leaded glass doors. Taking my seat, I feel a stirring of that familiar hope: If the food is as good as the room, this is bistro heaven.
The prices are beguiling. There's not an entree over $12.95 and most are under $10. And it's classic bistro fare: confit , sausage, entrecote . Crusty, light French bread comes to the table with sweet butter and a tasty liver puree.
Hungry, we immediately order a basket of homemade shoestring fries. They come out piping hot, crisp, peppery; we're helpless to stop eating them until the basket is empty. Around us, the room is full, the noise level high, the crowd a talky, adult West Hollywood neighborhood mix--highly accessorized women, guys with phones.
A chilled bi-colored tomato/potato soup is OK, nothing special. The eggplant tart is a pretty, mild, miniature casserole. My asparagus salad, however, is anemic and silly: six pencil-sized spears, a teaspoon of creamy dressing, one heap of teeny watery shrimp, another heap of weary chopped tomatoes.
I have a familiar inkling: Uh oh, bistro.
My ahi tuna is nicely grilled, even if the accompanying blobs of lentils are utterly bland. My friend is not so happy; he has ordered calves' liver, medium-rare. The meat arrives well-done, no trace of pink. Dry. He takes one bite. "This liver is not good," he says. He motions to the waitress. The waitress questions him: Did he order the liver medium-rare? Is he sure?
"It's worse than just overcooked," he says. His appetite is gone. He's very wan. He has to go home. A few minutes later, the owner comes over and apologizes. Someone else at another table has had a similar experience, the owner tells us. Liver has been pulled from the menu. We are not charged for the liver, a meager compensation for the loss of our friend's company.
Mistakes happen. I do return to Le Petit Bistro. I continue to enjoy the room and some of the food.
After eating the delicious, plump black mussels in a wine tomato sauce, I'm compelled to scoop up the remaining sauce with bread. Dull, oddly flat crab cakes perk up with a snappy pimento sauce; cured salmon has a good, old-fashioned mustard dill sauce. Pastas, the most uncharacteristic of bistro dishes on the menu, prove to be some of the best, particularly a tagliatelli with sweet rock shrimp and a cream sauce with Cognac.
And yet, a certain inattentiveness permeates much of Le Petit Bistro's food and service. The roast chicken is dry; the braised lamb shank not warmed through to the bone, creme caramel has a tough, rubbery skin. Isn't anybody in the kitchen monitoring this food? My veal sausages, murky with herbs, need mustard, but it takes me well over half the meal to catch the waitress's attention. Our water glasses and drinks run dry.
Desserts include bistro classics: profiteroles, peach Melba, poached pears, chocolate mousse--all more nostalgic than tasty.
Lingering in that pretty room over coffee with a group of well-traveled friends, we agree that Le Petit Bistro is reminiscent of Paris.
There is one key difference. Over there, when you walk out a bistro, good or bad, you're in Paris.
* Le Petit Bistro, 631 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 289-9797. Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner 7 nights. Full bar. Major credit cards. Valet parking. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$50.