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Cafe Pierre Puts Spin on Classics

The 25-year-old Manhattan Beach eatery isn't afraid to color a bit outside the lines on Mediterranean standards.

November 22, 2001

Located on the suspiciously cute, pedestrian-friendly stretch of Manhattan Beach Boulevard where the best dining strategy is usually to resign yourself to shelling out too much for too little is Cafe Pierre, a beloved local institution that isn't resting on its laurels.

It was opened 25 years ago by Guy Gabriele, who grew up in Provence but is of Tuscan descent--about as good a culinary lineage as you could have. The food is solid on the French and Italian basics, and the kitchen isn't afraid to color just outside the lines.

There's nothing novel about the escargots du chef, for example, but I haven't had better snails in years. In contrast to the rubbery, oversalted escargots you so often find elsewhere, these are impressively succulent; they come in an apt basil- and garlic-infused butter. The French onion soup gratinee is a model of elegant restraint: light but flavorful beef broth, a sensible amount of melted Gruyere cheese on the toast topping.

On the more innovative hand, there's a rice filling in the Louisiana risotto crab cakes, which gives them a pleasingly soft bite, and these are garnished with fried leeks and chipotle mayonnaise.

A salad of chilled baby romaine leaves tastes "more anointed than dressed"--a friend's words--with (very fine) Caesar dressing. For a heartier appetizer, try the portabello mushroom piccata, the earthy mushroom cap oozing with melted mozzarella and lashed with melted butter sharpened with lemon and capers.

One dish that sounds better than it turns out to be is the veal and beef raviolini adovado. Most of its flavor comes from pungent adovado sauce; the meat filling is dry and doesn't have much flavor. Go for the baked goat cheese Provencale instead; it's a generous slab of goat cheese marinated in olive oil and herbs and dusted with fine bread crumbs, served on baby greens tossed in a lemon-chive vinaigrette.

The pastas hold to a high standard. Fettuccine chimaya is chock full of plump, fresh, perfectly cooked shrimp, given a winning topspin by a spicy tequila ancho chile sauce with a well-placed high note of cilantro.

A favorite of regulars, and justifiably so, is the fettuccine casalinga, made with sauteed chicken, spinach, garlic, Parmesan and a very light cream sauce.

Cafe Pierre also handles seafood, meat and poultry well. A particular standout is the fennel-dusted chicken, slathered with a delicate sun-dried tomato cream sauce. The meat is so tender it practically falls from the bone, and its garnish of roasted fennel is delightfully aromatic. There's an expertly roasted duck served in a soft Pinot Noir reduction that galvanizes the flavor of the meat without masking it, though it comes with an unfortunate butternut squash risotto, gummy and heavy with cheese.

But I'm not keen on the veal sweetbreads. They may be the only out-and-out dud I've come across here. Mine were crisply breaded outside and succulent within, but there was little flavor apart from a slightly burned lemon-caper butter sauce.

True, the so-called "pork porterhouse" is dry and doesn't get much (make that any) character from its advertised spice rub. But ever since pork metamorphosed into a lean, dietarily unobjectionable meat, that's a problem you find wherever you go.

All is forgiven when the swordfish arrives. It's perfectly grilled, slathered with a characteristically subdued tomato vinaigrette and topped off with a rosemary mayonnaise that ought to make anyone reconsider the possibilities of tartar sauce.

Still, good as that fish is, I'm almost ready to name the steak au poivre Cafe Pierre's showstopper. Flamed in Cognac and fiercely seasoned with black pepper, it comes medium rare with a charred gossamer crust, weeping juice, sweet and pungent.

For dessert, don't miss the voluptuous brioche bread pudding, which is drizzled with caramel, and consider the tangy lemon cheesecake.

Cafe Pierre, 317 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Manhattan Beach. (310) 545-5252. Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5:30 p.m. to midnight Friday-Sunday. Full bar. Street parking; public lot nearby. All major cards. Dinner for two, $51-$82.

What to get: escargots, Louisiana risotto crab cakes, fettuccine chimaya, fennel-dusted chicken, swordfish, steak au poivre, brioche bread pudding.

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