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Restaurants | Critic's Notebook

Maison et Cafe Lends Some French Chic to La Brea Avenue

September 21, 2000|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

From a car, it's hard to spot the small cafe that's part of Maison et Cafe, the housewares arm of American Rag on La Brea Avenue. The fashion at American Rag is a mix of vintage Americana and edgy young designer ware, whereas the Maison side of the adjoining stores is a Francophile's dream. It's a cafe, sometime epicerie (selling herbs, olive oils and the odd ingredient) and housewares store rolled into one.

For anyone exploring the galleries and boutiques along La Brea between Melrose Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard, Cafe Midi is a lovely spot to stop for lunch. At the back of the sprawling Maison shop a few tables are set up next to a long bar. An inviting banquette with plump French fabric pillows offers additional seating. But who wants to sit inside on a crystal clear day in early fall? That's why the handful of sidewalk tables are so much in demand.

At lunch, Cafe Midi's chef, Edouard Moyal, who cooked at Le Chardonnay, turns out an appealing array of salads and sandwiches. His salade nicoise, for example, is more like one you'd find at a small cafe in Nice than any of the gentrified versions around town. It's made with the traditional tinned tuna--water-packed albacore instead of the dark, tasty tuna packed in olive oil, so the fish tends to be a bit dry. But the hard-boiled eggs, haricots verts and potatoes mixed in with the greens are perfectly cooked. The chef also makes a mean club sandwich with Black Forest ham and Gruyere on a tall, fluffy ciabatta. His take on a burger is ground sirloin and mozzarella on focaccia.

The lemonade is wonderful--freshly squeezed and not too sweet. For dessert, stroll past the fresh fruit tarts displayed on the counter. If nothing strikes your fancy, there's always chocolate--as in "Edouardo's brownie."

Mornings, slackers can stop in for an espresso or a frothy cafe au lait. And if you're feeling peckish, you can order an omelet, a short stack of buttermilk pancakes or a bowl of granola.

Maison et Cafe has an offhand chic that's seductive enough that an innocent coffee can easily turn into something dangerous. Before you know it, you're lusting after the Moroccan tea glasses decorated with a filigree of gold, a butter yellow cafe au lait bowl, a French damask linen tablecloth, or a huge ochre-glazed pot for your banana palm. Once I found myself lugging a huge tin of lavender honey home; another time yards of French cotton ticking to make some cushions.

On my last visit, I got lucky when I found some glazed oval baking dishes perfect for potato gratin or clafoutis at 75% off. Since lunch didn't set me back too much, I left feeling virtuous, dreaming of fall's gratins.

BE THERE

Cafe Midi, 148 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles; telephone (323) 939-9860; fax (323) 939-8047. Breakfast items $4 to $9; pasta $8 to $10; salads $4.50 to $10; sandwiches $7 to $9. Open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Parking in lot on block, or on street.

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