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SoCal Style / Restaurants

Joining the Bistro Boom

April 05, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Traditional French bistros are making a comeback in Los Angeles, if the throngs at Mimosa, Pastis and Troquet are any indication. And why shouldn't simple, earthy Gallic fare without the high prices or formality of serious French restaurants catch on? Every chef who doesn't already have a bistro is probably contemplating opening one. Every French chef, that is. And now La Cachette's Jean Francois Meteigner brings us Bistrot Provencal, just down the street from his old employer, L'Orangerie.

Set in a small house that once belonged to Fatty Arbuckle, Bistrot Provencal's budget decor consists of a slapdash paint job, a lot of Provencal tchotckes and pretty tablecloths bordered with sunflowers a la Van Gogh. There's a small bar in the corner and, dead center, a wood-burning oven left over from the restaurant before last, a trattoria that for years seemed on the verge of closing before it actually did. There's also an enclosed patio in front, where tiny lights are strung in the branches of a dead olive tree. It all feels as authentic as one of the myriad little restaurants in the south of France that rely more on tourists than locals for customers.

What Bistrot Pro-vencal sorely lacks, however, is someone capable of running the dining room efficiently. If you sit inside when the place is busy, you get much better service than you would on a slow night, when it's often harder to rouse a waiter. And if you sit on the patio, the wait staff can neglect you for long periods of time no matter how busy or slow the evening. On the other hand, you could land an alert, engaging waiter. You just never know. The kitchen's pacing is off, too. On a couple of occasions, the main courses arrive before the appetizers have been cleared. In short, Meteigner seems to think he and his partner, Allie Ko, can run their 4-month-old bistro without much attention to the details. And, sad to say, it shows.

Still, if you order intelligently, you can have a pleasant meal here. After your waiter brings out oil-cured olives and rosemary pizza bread, consider starting with a bowl of small, tender Long Island clams and Maine mussels mariniere, that is, steamed in white wine and shallots and garnished with enough parsley and garlic-infused olive oil to turn the broth a beautiful green. Another good choice is seared calamari served on skewers and accompanied by a miniature pissaladiere, Nice's variation on pizza, which is topped with caramelized onions, anchovy filets and black olives. I'm partial to the marinated herring served on warm potato slices with shallots, good olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. And, in season, there's a wonderful salad of warm, house-smoked local sardines draped on tiny rounds of waxy potatoes and showered with minced tomatoes, chives, yellow peppers and toasted pine nuts.

In the south of France, fish soup can be glorious when it's made from extremely flavorful Mediterranean fish strained and topped with croutons loaded with garlicky rouille. Bistrot Provencal's St. Tropez fish soup is dull, though, and that rouille piped onto the croutons has hardly any kick. Brandade, puree of potato and garlic with salted cod (and fresh cod in this version), is tame, short on garlic. The menu offers the ubiquitous mesclun salad (named for the mixed baby lettuces sold in markets throughout Provence), but spiking it with a variety of basil leaves is a nice touch canceled out by a sweet balsamic vinegar dressing that obliterates the delicate taste of the greens. All this salad needs is good Provencal olive oil and a few drops of wine vinegar.

Meteigner certainly knows how to write a menu, though. Main courses sound enticing, but due to indifferent or careless cooking, they aren't always delivered. Roasted duck breast is garnished with a lacy tuile tasting of lavender, honey and black pepper for an interesting contrast of flavors. Too bad the duck breast is so pallid in taste. And ravioli de blettes (half-moons with a deep green Swiss chard and potato filling showing through the transparent dough) that's now served as a special, would be soul-satisfying if only the chef hadn't decided to gild the lily with truffle oil. Bah!

Roasted leg of lamb is juicy and flavorful, served with a rich gratin of potato and slightly underdone flageolet beans (not a good thing with dried beans). Another night, the dried figs that accompany braised lamb shank are doused in booze, though the rosemary polenta is creamy and good. Veal daube isn't really that at all: It's made with fancy veal medallions instead of the stewing cuts that give the sauce depth of flavor.

That wood-burning oven comes into play for cooking whole fish (red snapper or striped bass, say) with Provencal herbs, the beloved blend of aromatic thyme, winter savory, rosemary and sage. The juices are perfumed with the anise-flavored liqueur Ricard. This I like. Wood-fired freshwater blue prawns, however, have an unpleasantly soapy taste the night I try them.

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