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Petit Amazing

February 11, 2001|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Restaurant work is brutal. Cooking on the line on a busy night in a big restaurant with orders coming in nonstop, dealing with waiters in a snit and impossible customers demands a certain kind of personality. It's a high-wire act--thrilling when you pull those dishes out of a hat, but unrelentingly exhausting. Is it any wonder that many chefs dream of sometime, somewhere opening a little restaurant where they'd cook for 20 people, no more?

That moment came for Koichiro Kikuchi when he opened the 20-seat Bistro 21 last year in a mini-mall on north La Cienega Boulevard. Kikuchi was executive chef for seven years at La Boheme, but that restaurant has always been known more for the scene (and its campy operatic decor) than its food.

At Bistro 21, this French-trained native of Japan can cook seriously for a handpicked audience. In fact, whenever I've been there, at least half the guests have come by word of mouth and are speaking Japanese. The scale suits him perfectly. There is one chef (Kikuchi), one cook to assist him, his wife, Akiyo, in the front and a waiter to help her.

I heard about Bistro 21 from fans of the restaurant across the street, L'Orangerie. They crowed that Bistro 21 is every bit as good, for much less money.

This modest bistro is not the most comfortable restaurant, but given the couple's budget, they've created an attractive setting for Kikuchi's polished French-California cooking. Walls are painted a dusty green. Glass sconces diffuse the light. They've chosen classic art nouveau bistro chairs and have matching stools lined up at the tall counter in front of the open kitchen. Sprays of orchids decorate the white-clothed tables. Occasionally you hear the comforting hum of the espresso machine or the hiss of the hand blender. Other than that, it's remarkably quiet.

Calm, collected, the chef is the slender figure wearing the baseball hat. Akiyo, in a long charcoal gray apron, her dark hair tied in a ponytail, works the front of the restaurant with grace and efficiency. Her English can be shaky at times, but she works hard to make sure everything is just as you requested it.

Kikuchi's dishes are beautiful but not overly fussy, embodying the Japanese aesthetic. They show a wonderful balance of form and color, without ever looking stiff. One night the amuse-gueule is a pale salmon sphere, as substantial as a meatball, in a tiny pool of acidulated cream laced with minced shallots and chive. It's a lovely grace note to begin the meal.

Seared foie gras is on every menu these days, it seems. Kikuchi's is a perfectly seared medallion on a pedestal of cooked daikon, which lends a refreshing lightness to the foie gras' richness. The sauce is a combination of the natural juices and a swirl of aged balsamic balanced, I suspect, with a splash of a more acidic vinegar. His mushroom soup, a special, is smoothed with just a touch of cream. The taste is round and full, the essence of forest mushrooms. Nobody makes old-fashioned soups like this anymore, and it's a shame. His lobster bisque is a purist's version. No cream, just a deep red-orange bisque that's a bit gritty in texture, with a remarkably intense flavor.

Kikuchi is particularly strong on seafood. Steamed lobster is beautifully presented, the curl of the tail artfully arranged on the plate, along with the meaty (shelled) claws and a swath of emerald green watercress sauce. Beneath the carapace is a medley of Japanese eggplant, potatoes and other vegetables. Though the lobster is flawlessly cooked, the taste is a shadow of what it would be if cooked closer to its origins off the Maine coast. I also liked a special of sauteed New Zealand snapper with a restrained gold-yellow saffron clam sauce. The fish shows off the Japanese respect for freshness.

Duck confit inevitably appears on French or French-California menus. Kikuchi's is the real thing, the leg and thigh salted and cooked slowly in duck fat until the dark, sumptuous meat shreds off the bone. Underneath is an austere, properly al dente risotto next to a few gloriously crunchy fresh green beans. On top of the confit are a few wispy salad greens. A hit of vinegar from the vinaigrette brilliantly cuts the fattiness of the duck. Braised whole lamb shank is presented on the bone, with no apologies, in a red-wine reduction and its natural juices. I like the accompanying stack of potato slices layered with mashed potato. If you like magret, Bistro 21's is a handsome fan of sliced duck breast cooked to a true medium rare.

Here it comes as a surprise when a dish is just OK or doesn't quite work. The shredded crab salad, for example, is overpowered by the artificial taste of truffle oil. And come dessert, the choux a l'orange is perplexing: cream puffs filled with a sweet yellow pepper puree. It's hard to know what Kikuchi is going for, but I appreciate that he's taking a chance.

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