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Provencal Home Cooking

It's a gift to be simple at Pastis. The restaurant offers good food without much fuss in a comfortable setting. Could this be the next foodie craze?

March 06, 1997|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOS ANGELES — Back in the '80s, when guessing the next food trend was a popular indoor sport, I always bet on Provence. I figured southern France has a climate much like ours and uses all the garlic, olive oil and fresh vegetables a foodie could want. But so does Italy, and the next food trend turned out to be the Italian craze, which is still with us.

Still, Pastis, which takes its name from a Provencal anise liqueur, makes an attractive case for southern France. This little place on Beverly Boulevard a few doors west of Crescent Heights Boulevard has a comfortable Mediterranean look that wears well: wooden chairs, dusty-yellow walls with some old posters and a couple of fishing poles.

Here and there in the food you find saffron, aspic or escargots, but much of it has a simple, home-cooked quality. Soon after you sit down, a basket of bread shows up with a little pot of easygoing olive paste.

One of the best examples of this simplicity is the most appealing of the appetizers, tartines a Roquefort. It's just toasted French bread with Roquefort cheese melted on top, along with chopped walnuts and a dash of Cognac.

Tarte a la tomate is basically an onion tart flavored with tomato juice and topped with tomato slices. With its rich short crust and sweet tomato flavor, it makes pizza look unutterably coarse. Why can't you get this at other restaurants?

Feuillete d'escargots, on the other hand, is snails but not your usual snails in garlic butter, though there's garlic in it (one is in Provence, after all), along with a faint whiff of pastis; each snail is neatly baked in an individual pastry shell. The terrine du chef is a duck pa^te, which they bring out a bit too cold. It's garnished to the Provencal taste with tart green olives as well as French gherkins. It also comes with a lot of chopped tomato aspic, more melting and flavorful than the aspic you get in a lot of upscale French places.

You can also get a pleasant bowl of steamed mussels or a salad with a slice of firm goat cheese and a couple of sardines. The plain green salad is pretty bland.

The most powerful entree, civet de lapin, combines the homey and the elegant. This is not the classic civet with a blood-thickened sauce but a sort of rabbit version of coq au vin, stewed with little onions, bits of bacon and a very strong red wine. The very delicate fresh noodles it's served on are an irresistible foil for it.

I think of bourride as a soup flavored with aioli; Pastis' version is more like fish in a good deal of sauce. It's a big chunk of monkfish, perfectly cooked, sitting in a fishy broth with hints of saffron and garlic. Like a lot of other entrees, it tends to come with salsify, a mild Mediterranean root vegetable Pastis evidently likes.

There's an excellent leg of lamb with a bit of olive stuffing, served with a potato gratin; nice lamb, good dose of olives. The homiest item is probably foie de veau, a calf's liver smothered with onions, lightly dashed with vinegar.

Artichokes show up in a couple of entrees--as a vegetable with the pleasant, relatively moist pork loin (which does not in itself have a very pronounced personality) and as a topping for a New York steak. They add a definite Provencal note, though they taste water-packed.

I found the duck breast a bit fatty and nondescript, but it might have been better served a little warmer. A roast salmon special took a nice piece of fish, cooked it well and left it on the plate to fend for itself with nothing but some salsify, a lonely sort of dish.

The dessert list is short and just about flawless. Everybody loves the chewy chocolate-caramel tart with its slightly crunchy crust. The tarte au citron sometimes has a faint eggy flavor, but there's a powerful lemon tang in this deceptively thin tart. Take small bites. Creme bru^lee a la lavande supposedly has some lavender in it. Maybe; I certainly got the wonderful cinnamon flavor. The poached pear slices in cream are sort of unobtrusive.

The short wine list makes a bit of an effort to offer southern French wines. There's a Rose de Provence, a Co^tes du Rhone, a Cha^teauneuf-du-Pape and a surprisingly soft and berry-like red Co^tes de Languedoc. In the dessert wine list (which runs to non-vintage Ports), you can find a plush-tasting Muscat de Frontignan and (for 50 cents less) another sweet muscat, an incredibly fragrant Beaumes de Venise. The dessert wines are priced in the same general category as desserts; and good as the desserts are, you might want to end a light meal with a glass instead of a plate.

BE THERE

Pastis, 8114 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 655-8822. 6:30-10 p.m. Sun.-Thurs., 6:30-11 p.m. Fri. and Sat. Beer and wine. Street parking. All major cards. Dinner for two, food only, $40-$57.

What to Order: tartines a Roquefort, tarte a la tomate, civet de lapin, bourride, tarte au chocolat.

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