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Bistro Is a Perfect Avenue to Relax

March 31, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Bellflower is not exactly a hotbed of ambitious cuisine. When the much-praised Magdalena's closed two years back, that pretty much left Cafe Camelias as the genre's sole local representative.

Now the owners of Cafe Camelias--among them the chef, Richard Alm--have endeavored to improve the situation. Their brainchild is the new Boulevard Bistro, on the very spot to which Magdalena's once drew crowds.

The restaurant has been totally remodeled and given a spacious, almost classical appearance. The walls are warm ocher, painted with a soft sponge; flocks of coppery lampshades hang from the ceiling; one lone booth, upholstered in a rococo fabric, sits rather defiantly against a back wall. Tropical plants add exotic charm; short-backed designer chairs add style. But the crowds have not yet rediscovered this location. Perhaps it's because Boulevard Bistro is not as flashy as Magdalena's--or as French, despite the handful of Art Nouveau prints posted around the two dining rooms.

It offers something else: solid Mediterranean fare at reasonable prices. This is a restaurant where you can get paella in a huge iron pan, pasta alla puttanesca done with rustic flair or even a simple plate of roast chicken. There are a few holes in the cooking, but to tell the truth, in many ways this restaurant is better than Magdalena's ever was.

You can relax here, too. Magdalena's could feel crowded, almost claustrophobic, but the tables at Boulevard Bistro have more space around them. In fact, you may have to relax; some of the cooking--pizzas and certain main dishes, for instance--is done at a deliberate, often downright slow pace. Things start out quickly, anyway. When you're seated, you find a basket of warm, homemade rolls and little crocks of aioli , garlicky mayonnaise mixed with whole roasted garlic cloves. You'll probably see this sauce again later in the meal.

In fact, you might see more aioli right away when you order an appetizer. Good, greaseless fried calamari are the perfect foil for it. The aioli is a bit much, however, on the grilled artichoke, which is already somewhat oily from grilling.

A particularly good appetizer choice would be the escargot, prepared in an inventive manner. Instead of serving them with the usual garlic butter, Alm tosses half a dozen snails with garlic, tomatoes, prosciutto and onions.

The best salad is probably the classic Greek: greens, tomatoes, Kalamata olives, dry cubes of feta cheese and a muscular vinaigrette with a bite to it. Warm rock shrimp salad runs a close second, tossed with red bell peppers, the flavorful little shrimp and a garlic and balsamic vinegar dressing.

About half the menu is pizza or pasta. The pizzas have medium-thick crusts and toppings such as wild game sausage, large shrimp or ripe black olives. Just as at Spago, there's a smoked salmon pizza, but somebody here forgot to leave off the mozzarella.

The pastas tend to be rich--in fact, too rich for the true Mediterranean taste. There are ravioli filled with goat cheese and salmon and then drenched in a fresh herb-Champagne sauce; just fine, if you only eat one. Similarly, rigatoni Bolognese come with a hearty beef ragout for a sauce, about three times as much meat and sauce as good pasta should have.

It is at the main course that this restaurant really shines. No visit here seems justified without a helping of Alm's paella. At $17.95, it's the priciest thing on the menu--but when you consider that the serving is really big enough for three, it starts to look like a steal. The components (besides rice, of course) are sausage, chicken, crawfish, calamari, mussels, clams and scallops, and they blend marvelously. The chef uses just the right amount of saffron and then cooks it perfectly so that the rice forms a golden crust on the inside of the pan.

Bouillabaisse is also on this menu: more aioli, natch, plus the same seafoods as the paella. But instead of being a saffrony casserole, it's a soup based on an unspectacular stock. I'd take the garlic prawns or the lamb chops or maybe even a plate of roast chicken over the bouillabaisse.

Of course, those other dishes are remarkable competition. The prawns are sauteed in a garlic and white wine reduction, served on a bed of white beans and andouille sausage. The free-range chicken is roasted with lemon and balsamic vinegar to a nice tenderness.

And the lamb chops are as tender as a baby's kiss, broiled with balsamic vinegar. Their only problem is an overly rich herb sauce. In fact, I've more than once wished there were a little judicious restraint in the sauces here. The great virtue of Mediterranean cuisine is simplicity--there's no need to dress everything up.

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