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RESTAURANTS : THE REVIEW

Just 'like that' -- this place is a hit

Chef David Myers' new spot, Comme Ca, is fashionably French and fairly bursting with life. A reservation is a must.

January 16, 2008|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

COMME CA, the sparkling new brasserie from David Myers of Sona, is a runaway success, a crossover that's both a seriously good restaurant and a trendy one. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, the excitement lights up the restaurant scene, which has generally been in the doldrums since the economic downturn and now the writers strike. This is the place everyone wants to be, and that pretty much guarantees a crazy mix of people angling for a table and some grand cru people-watching.

Comme Ca, French for "like that," is effervescent and fun. As you arrive, you have to make your way through the crowd out front, pacing, murmuring into iPhones, waiting for friends to arrive, or cadging a smoke between courses. Just inside the door, would-be eaters are pressed close against the maitre d's lectern, where a severely chic hostess in black studies the reservations. Those who arrive without one can hope for one of the small tables in the bar, but unless it's late, they're usually all taken.

Heads turn as each new group enters the Melrose Avenue restaurant and either sidles up to the bar -- where consulting bartender Sam Ross, from the celebrated Manhattan cocktail bar Milk & Honey, mixes up wee, twee cocktails with a nostalgic bent -- or spots a table of friends and insinuates itself into what feels like the ultimate dinner party.

And like a good party, it can also get loud. In this case, deafeningly so. But it's a little better in the front dining room, which is also the best spot for people watching.

I've lucked into a white tufted leather banquette that runs along the front dining room's dark wainscoting, where I have a prime view of the scene. A giant plateau de fruits de mer is delivered to a tiny table across the room. Loaded with oysters, clams, mussels, crab and what not, the two-tiered affair is so tall, the two diners can hardly see each other across it. Meanwhile, the fromager, wrapped up in a big apron and wearing a low black hat raffishly askew, comes out to advise a table on a cheese selection, then dashes over to the cheese bar to put it together. Next to me, a server delivers an East Side cocktail (gin, mint, lime and cucumber) and a Rumble (rum, lemon, blackberries and crushed ice) to a pair of women in spangled black cocktail dresses. They must have been expecting more of a club scene than a serious French brasserie, but as soon as a warm baguette arrives wrapped in brown paper, they drop all pretense and start wolfing down the thick-crusted bread baked at Boule, the bakery Myers operates around the corner on La Cienega.

A richer classic

Here's our tarte flambee, a misshapen oval flatbread slathered with fromage blanc, skeins of sweet, caramelized onions and a surfeit of smoky lardons. Now we're the ones wolfing. I love the sweet onions against the smoky bacon. Though much richer than the classic you'd get in Alsace, where it's the local answer to pizza, Comme Ca's is quite delicious, so much so that I end up ordering it as a starter for the table every time I go.

Every French brasserie, of course, has soupe a l'oignon -- onion soup. Usually it's a sorry affair, but here it's a revelation. Instead of the usual murky broth that tastes like reconstituted bouillon cubes, Comme Ca's version is made with a rich, clear stock and ribbons of soft, caramelized onions capped with a melted layer of good Gruyere. First-class ingredients make all the difference.

Myers' food at Sona is precious, iconoclastic and sometimes difficult to love, but here, surprisingly, he zeros in on French bistro and brasserie classics. He's also been very smart, tapping Manhattan for not only mixologist Ross, but also executive chef Michael David, two of the best at the serious restaurant-trendy scene thing. David cooked at both Cafe Boulud and DB Bistro Moderne, two of the best casual French restaurants in New York. David is a thorough professional who not only can cook, he also knows how to get the food out in a timely fashion. When you order moules frites, the fries that come with the steamed mussels are fresh out of the fryer, heaped into a metal cone-shaped vase, dark gold and irresistible with a proper aioli. The mussel broth is dosed with cream and a dash of Pernod to delicious effect. For $16, this could be dinner.

Brandade de morue gratinee is the real thing, an oval cast iron casserole filled with a gutsy mix of dried salt cod and potatoes, delicious spread on toast. I love the roasted beef marrow, two tall bones standing upright, the luscious marrow ready to be scooped out with a small spoon. On the side is an oxtail jam, the shredded meat cooked and reduced until it's butter tender.

For something lighter, consider the salade aux legumes of crisp, chilled baby romaine jumbled up with fresh artichoke hearts, green beans, and other vegetables in a light, subtle dressing. It beats any salade you're likely to get at a brasserie in France.

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