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Bistro for a Bargain

March 23, 1997|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Sliding into a banquette at the new French bristo Mimosa, I catch a whiff of garlic and thyme and realize how hungry I am. Next to me, three men pour Beaujolais for one another and wait, forks poised, as a waiter dishes out a fragrant daube de veau from a green-enameled casserole. While one man digs into the tender veal, sweet carrots, brown mushrooms and potatoes carved into perfect ovals, all cloaked in a dark glaze of juices, one of his friends happily cuts into his onglet, the flavorful steak also known as "butcher's cut," and plucks a couple of perfectly golden frites. The last of the trio savors his generous seafood casserole, a tomato broth brimming with clams, mussels, even scallops in the shell.

From my vantage point, I see a row of tables covered with glasses, wine bottles, platters of food, surrounded by people laughing, talking, eating with gusto. Couples stroll in, table-hop, then leave when they find they must wait for a table of their own. Twentysomethings have a smoke on the sidewalk.

Open only a few months, Mimosa has already become a magnet for L.A.'s expatriate French and anyone else hungry for authentic French bistro food. It seems French chef Jean-Pierre Bosc and his partner, Silvio de Mori, who fends off the crowds with good grace, have struck just the right note. Mimosa is the only bistro in town that really feels like one. And I don't mean a chic Michelin-starred restaurant run by a top French chef, but an inexpensive neighborhood place where the locals eat every day.

The small menu is filled with dishes I long to eat: salade Lyonnaise, warm leeks in vinaigrette, steamed mussels, roasted chicken, cassoulet, steak frites. There are, the menu explains, "no truffles, no caviar, no bizarre concoctions, simply our interpretations of French regional cuisine with a touch of Italy." And no high-falutin prices either. Sounds good to me.

It's nice to be able to start a meal with real salade Lyonnaise: wisps of frisee tossed with smoked bacon bits, bacon drippings and a mustardy vinaigrette, topped by a poached egg. The same goes for shiny blue-black mussels steamed in white wine and shallots, with enough delicious juice to soak up with your bread. But that bread is a sore point. "It's a shame for a French restaurant to serve this," one of my French guests says, shoving away a piece of pale, cottony baguette. I agree. At the very least, the restaurant could charge a supplement so those who want better could pay extra.

Don't overlook the tarte flambee. I once traveled all over Strasbourg and Alsace, sampling different kinds. Something like supple, thin-crusted pizza (ideally, baked in a wood-fired oven), tarte flambee is lightly smeared with creme fra'che or fresh white cheese and garnished with onions and lardons of bacon. Mimosa's version, without the bacon, is great for sharing while you peruse the rest of the menu.

One day there are pristinely fresh shrimp, steamed whole and served with a bowl of garlicky rouille. A slab of chicken liver terrine that comes on the charcuterie platter with raw-cured ham and salami tastes like the real thing, and what's more, comes with cornichons and oil-cured olives. And the lightly smoked, house-cured salmon, marinated "herring-style" in olive oil and herbs, hits the spot along with a warm potato salad.

Choosing main courses can be equally difficult. The chicken en cocotte, a whole boned chicken browned and baked in a casserole with a medley of vegetables, easily serves two. At $15, it's a great bargain. Bosc's cassoulet boasts beans that have soaked up every bit of flavor as they cooked. They, not the confit, star in this peasant dish. The chef makes andouillette (tripe sausage), as well as raclette, the cheese melted over Yukon gold potatoes and served with Italian bresaola. He also sometimes serves braised rabbit or a choucroute Alsacienne, sauerkraut garnished with meats and sausages.

For all its appeal, though, Mimosa's bistro fare isn't as polished as the cooking at Michel Richard's late, lamented Bar Bistro at Citrus. Bosc--who was one of the original chefs at Fennel in the late '80s and who cooked (the same menu over and over) at Lunaria in Century City, where he remains a consultant--may be a bit jaded by customers who aren't very knowledgeable or very demanding. He has some excellent dishes all right, but others, like the five-hour arista, need fine-tuning. Here, the famous roast pork of Tuscany is rubbery and bears faint resemblance to the genuine article, which should be redolent of fennel, garlic and black pepper. As for the ho-hum steak tartare, Bosc should try letting diners season it at the table. And though I'm pleased to order boudin noir, I get a greasy, hamburger-sized slice that's been coated with breadcrumbs and fried.

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