Bouchon, a new French bistro in the wild heart of Melrose Avenue, has got the look right. Less glitzy than Balthazar, the New York SoHo restaurant that helped launch the retro-bistro trend, this rendition of a Lyonnaise bouchon, or working-class bistro, is faithful in its details. I love the Dijon mustard-colored walls, the way the scrawl of red neon spelling out the name casts a rosy glow around the doorway, the vintage equestrian photos decorating the walls of the long dining room, the plain mirrors at the back of the red banquettes.
But where's our waiter? We sit for long minutes waiting for someone--anyone--to notice us. Meanwhile, we end up gobbling down most of the soft, crusty French bread. Instead of butter, it's served with a crock of cervelles decanuts, a fresh white cheese spread that's a close relative of that served at Lyon's bouchons. When our bona fide French waiter finally shows up, sidetracked along the way by other diners demanding more bread or a bottle of wine opened, he couldn't be more charming. "Yes?" he asks, cocking his head to the side, pencil ready.
It's damp and cold enough that onion soup sounds appealing. The broth is rather weak, but the mild onions are nicely cooked, and there's plenty of Comte cheese melted over the slice of bread floating on top (for me, always the best part of French onion soup.)
Rillettes of duck and pork are curiously bland instead of rich and robust. Rabbit stewed in red wine with prunes may be a little stringy and overcooked, but you can't complain about the portion: It's huge. Since it seems like just the kind of night for steak frites too, we decide to try the bavette (flank steak) with shallots. What a pleasure it is to get a piece of beef you can sink your teeth into. Too bad it doesn't have more flavor. It's not surprising, though, given the low prices here. The kitchen can't possibly afford to buy the best ingredients, but they certainly could cook what they have with more skill. Oops, after we've almost finished the steak, here come the frites--thoroughly limp, about the worst fries I've ever eaten. Bouchon's kitchen could learn a thing or two on this score from In-N-Out Burger.
For dessert, frangipane--puff pastry filled with marzipan--sounds lovely. What we get is a rectangle of tough, not quite cooked puff pastry with a filling that's cold at the center. What, wonder, can possibly be going on in the kitchen?
When I made my tour of Lyon's bouchons, I had some wonderful, lusty--and very cheap--French food in a warm and amiable atmosphere. Bouchon has the authentic ambience. If only the food were better. It wouldn't be all that hard to fix.
Bouchon Bistro Lyonnais, 7661 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 852-9400. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to midnight. Appetizers, $5 to $10; main courses, $9 to $19. Valet parking.