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EATS: Restaurant Reviews and News | COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

A Bit of France, California and Soul

Whatever you call the elegant and carefully prepared food at Pshaw's Bistro, it's all good.

July 23, 1998|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Up a flight of stairs at Gower Street and Sunset Boulevard, with your Pinot Hollywood across the street and the local branch of Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles just to the north, there's a place called Pshaw's Bistro Fine French Soul Food.

Come again? Pshaw's Bistro? French Soul Food? And all this is on the second floor of a corner mall?

Mysterious but true. If you walked up those stairs (or took the elevator in the corner of the parking lot), you'd find a romantic, dimly lit dining room with some unusually good African art right inside the door. Even more romantic is the lush garden patio, which overflows with flowering vines and potted silk oak trees. There's a subtle, tasty jazz soundtrack--which, surprisingly, you can hear even out on the patio. This is a pretty busy intersection, but the greenery and the second floor location muffle the traffic reasonably well.

Chef Phillip E. Shaw (the P. Shaw of the restaurant's name) comes from a rural Florida background--his father was a sharecropper--but he decided at a young age to become a chef and ended up graduating from the famous Culinary Institute of America in New York. His CIA diploma hangs in stately splendor near the cash register.

With this background, you'd expect Shaw to offer some Southern specialties, and he does, such as complimentary tiny corn muffins and a convincing okra gumbo. But the final surprise about this place is that Shaw rarely goes for easy or obvious effects. In this classy setting he could probably get away with serving ribs and greens on tasteful china (he does have good taste in china), but basically, Shaw aims high, he aims elegant.

Though his food might pass for French or California cuisine, it's really like the best cooking everywhere: carefully prepared and with a high focus on ingredients. For instance, Shaw makes a rather Californian salad of jicama, black beans and corn kernels in a garlicky vinaigrette, but even more characteristic is his butter lettuce salad, which is just butter lettuce dotted with a few radish slices in a light, sweet dressing. It makes you realize how often the flavor and texture of this delightful lettuce is wasted by being thrown into a hodgepodge of mixed greens.

The small appetizer selection also has a couple of soups. There's always a rather understated seafood minestrone. I've had a soup of the day that was cream of broccoli, not terribly rich but with a pure broccoli flavor.

Shaw's usual way with meat is to cook it simply and serve it with some highly concentrated meat juices and several vegetables. Take the oxtails: three joints of this unusual cut, which is awkward to eat but has the most concentrated imaginable meat flavor. They come with slim green beans, baby carrots (with half an inch of greens left on), rice, black-eyed peas and a blackened cherry tomato.

Likewise there's a nicely moist sauteed double-thick pork chop. Shaw's specialty is a juicy Cornish hen stuffed with shiitake mushrooms. The bones (except for the wing and leg bones) have been removed, turning the bird into a sort of sophisticated protein bundle.

Salmon gets nicely grilled and served on a bed of sauteed spinach that has been layered onto some mashed potatoes. It comes with mushrooms, green beans and little peeled orange sections.

The seafood gumbo, made with chicken, sausage, shrimp, crab legs and okra, is a bit more thickened than usual. It's based on a moderately dark roux, which gives it the appropriately brooding bayous-of-your-mind flavor.

There are a couple of fairly standard pastas, such as linguine with shrimp and scallops in a garlicky cream sauce. The coconut shrimp turns out to be very crunchy breaded prawns in a thin, sweet sauce that amounts to coconut syrup. This would seem to be the one dish in which Shaw gets truly wacky in the California manner, but it must be admitted the shrimp are perfectly cooked.

By far the best dessert is the intense chocolate mousse cake, though there's often a respectable Key lime pie. The pineapple supreme cake is just a plain cake with pineapple chunks, and the four-layer coconut cake may be cold from the refrigerator. On Sundays, Pshaw's serves some of the regular menu with a couple of additions at brunch.

Altogether, Pshaw's is worth a detour. It's even worth walking up a flight of stairs.

BE THERE

Pshaw's Bistro, 6099 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 871-2546; fax (213) 871-2503. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday brunch. No alcohol. All major cards. Dinner for two, $37-$64.

What to Get: butter lettuce salad, braised oxtail, seafood gumbo, grilled salmon, Cornish hen, chocolate mousse cake.

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