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A Rare Budget Bistro

Bouchon, 7661 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, (323) 852-9400. Cuisine: French. Rating: *

March 26, 2000|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Bouchon--Bistro Lyonnaise on Melrose Avenue--is about as atmospheric as L.A. bistros come. A scrawl of yellow neon spells out "Bistro Lyonnaise" in front; "Bouchon" is painted on the window; and the banquettes are the color of a sturdy C0tes-du-Rh0ne rouge. At the back is a massive dark wood bar, crowned with knickknacks and a manikin bust wearing a gendarme's hat.

Right down to the butcher paper spread on the tabletops, Bouchon, which recently grew from 60 to 150 seats, looks so much like France that it takes a minute to register what's wrong with this picture: The crowd looks suitably urban-bohemian--lots of black leather and shaved heads. Almost every table has wine, with a preponderance of rouge over blanc. But nobody's smoking. The haze that perennially hovers like a fog in French bistros is missing. Tant pis.

The walls are the color of Dijon mustard and hung with black-and-white photos of equestrian scenes, an affectionate reference to the origin of the word bouchon. In the 16th century, people traveling by horseback would stop for a bite while they had a stable lad rub down--bouchonner--their horses. These simple eating places, nicknamed bouchons, later evolved into working-class bistros where Lyon's hard-working canuts, or silk weavers, came for their midmorning snack. And in that city, today the third largest in France, it was no dainty croissant and coffee.

Actually, I can't think of a cuisine less attuned to Los Angeles' preference for light, summery fare than Lyon's hearty bistro food. Why then is Bouchon, which opened 18 months ago, drawing such crowds even after a somewhat shaky start? (It's already on its third chef. Finding someone to cook inexpensive bistro fare well is obviously not easy.)

The answer, in part, is the price. Beef bourguignon for $9? Chicken pot au feu for $10? It's real food, and the portions aren't small either, except for the salade lyonnaise, a fluff of frisee strewn with lardons and topped with a poached egg. One of my companions slathers his bread with the savory pate that comes with the charcuterie plate, which also features salami, standing in for rosette de Lyon, and a slice of ham. "We would have loved to have had a place like this to go when we were just starting out and El Coyote was all we could afford," he says.

The thin-crusted baguette is fluffy and rather dry, closer to what you'd find in everyday France than La Brea Bakery's handcrafted loaf. It comes with a pot of fresh white cheese dosed with shallots and herbs. Spread on the baguette, it's a welcome change from the usual tapenade most bistros here serve.

Onion soup arrives bubbling in a white porcelain bowl, a mild, beefy broth laden with gently stewed onions and a wonderfully gooey topping of Comte cheese. A bowl of mussels steamed in white wine and shallots has a broth that cries out to be soaked in that baguette. The pissaladiere, a Nioise tart spread with caramelized onions and dotted with olives, needs better quality anchovies because these are incredibly salty. Rabbit rillettes looks more like a slice of terrine and is utterly bland. You're better off with the warm, sliced boudin blanc, a chicken and veal sausage, served with sauteed apples. And think of the escargots, served out of the shell and swimming in garlic butter, as a do-it-yourself garlic bread.

Admittedly, many of the traditional bouchon dishes are missing--things such as andouillette (Normandy's odoriferous tripe sausage, which is very much an acquired taste) or tablier de sapeur (fireman's apron, sort of a tripe steak). Chef Philip Dubose, who trained in Lyon and worked at L.A.'s Vida and Boxer, has the difficult task of devising a menu that's authentic yet somewhat creative and at prices that are extremely low for a restaurant that cooks everything from scratch.

Tender roast lamb loin coated with a Dijon mustard and goat cheese crust is a fine bargain here at $13. Boeuf bourguignon is satisfying, too, with plenty of long-simmered red wine sauce to soak up with that bread. Even the chicken pot au feu is tasty enough for such basic comfort fare, with root vegetables strewn around the plate and a nice broth. For $9, you can have an entire roast game hen. But please pass the salt. And the onglet, or hanger steak, is smothered in sauteed shallots and red wine. It's surprisingly edible for the price.

Second courses are served a la carte, so you should at least order one side to share. There's a lovely gratin Dauphinois, a delicious layering of potatoes, cream and butter, and a delightful plate of haricots verts sauteed in butter. I could live on those potatoes and the sauteed spinach, which tastes vibrantly fresh and alive. Dubose shops the farmers markets as much as possible, and it shows in the quality of these vegetables. But my favorite is the cauliflower gratin blanketed in a rich and floury bechamel.

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