It's a spare, modern room with a few artworks on the wall and big picture windows. Through another window you can see into a gleaming kitchen with a small fortune in copper pans prominently hung over the stoves.
Yes, Bistro 31 is a Westside restaurant, located between Ocean Park Boulevard and the Santa Monica Airport. But it's open only Monday through Wednesday, and if you miss its door, you'll find yourself in a corridor full of classrooms. Bistro 31 is actually a class being taken by culinary arts majors at the Art Institute of Los Angeles.
At lunch, the place caters to Art Institute students with sandwiches and simple entrees in the $6.25 range. But in the evenings, it has a more ambitious menu and a mostly nonstudent clientele. After 7 p.m. you can use the Art Institute parking lot for free, and that's the best place to park because the entrance faces the lot. Before 7, you have to scramble for street parking.
The students do everything from baking rolls and making ice cream to waiting tables. The food is in the California cuisine category, but with a number of continental favorites such as steak au poivre and cherries jubilee so the students can perform table-side. You may see an instructor peering over your waiter's shoulder during the Caesar salad ritual.
They also create the menus (generally three salads and three entrees), which change every other day. But they don't change radically--there appears to be a certain family resemblance from week to week. For one thing, the dishes prepared on a cart beside the table are obvious crowd pleasers, such as the steak au poivre.
This French bistro classic is presented with full ritual: sprinkling the steak with salt and coarsely ground pepper, frying it in butter, flaming it with brandy (with luck, the flames may leap a foot and a half in the air) and finally enriching the pan juices with concentrated stock. Apart from providing a bit of a show, it can be quite good, with a meaty sauce.
Caesar salad, made for two, is another of the cart specialties. It's a pretty classic Caesar, down to mixing the sauce with coddled eggs, though pretty heavy on the anchovies and sometimes made with lettuces other than romaine.
In the Mood for a Hot Spinach Salad?
And then there's the wilted spinach salad, which involves bits of fried bacon, brown sugar (sometimes a tad too much brown sugar), mustard, mushrooms and vinegar. At the end, this is all flamed and overturned onto the salad (the skillet smothers the flames before any spinach actually catches fire).
I prefer the showmanship-free dishes, though, such as a salad I had one night: several strips of perfectly seared ahi, crusted with sesame seeds, leaning on a tower of mixed greens and minced red bell peppers in a mild, slightly sweet sauce with a hint of ginger and soy. Or the salad of roasted eggplant and bell pepper mixed with a lot of greens, some rich goat cheese and a wonderful purplish orange dressing that might be balsamic vinegar and cream.
I've also had beef tenderloin in a tarragon and sage reduction, garnished with yellow squash and bell peppers cut into olive shapes and three neatly piped columns of mashed potato. Another night there was sea bass (a hair overdone) in a bit of cream sauce tinted orange with red bell peppers and spiked with mango and chives.
Twice I've found salmon rubbed with paprika, served on wild rice with roasted corn kernels and topped with fried onion shreds. One night there was roast chicken--cut in slices, arranged between two disks of puff pastry--with a relish of pineapple and pecans. Another night it was a huge pork chop with pineapple and pecans.
Dessert runs to custard (rather eggy), homemade ice creams and flambeed productions such as cherries jubilee and bananas Foster.
You don't judge a student restaurant by the same standards as a real-world restaurant, so at Bistro 31 you accept the occasional nervous waiter, and once my steak au poivre had way too much meat glaze in it. Don't be reluctant to complain, though--the kids have to know whether they're doing it right.
* Bistro 31, Art Institute of Los Angeles, 2900 31st St., Santa Monica. (310) 314-6057 or (310) 752-4700; reservations are essential. Lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays. No alcohol. Street and lot parking. All major cards. Dinner for two, food only, $33-$49.
* What to Get: Caesar salad, seared ahi, beef tenderloin, salmon rubbed with red chile, steak au poivre, bananas Foster.