[L'Epicerie Market in Culver City is a bar, a dining room, a bakery… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)
At L'Epicerie Market in Culver City, the escargots arrive in a small heap on the plate, not served in the usual shells but napped in a silky white wine sauce with ribbons of ham and velvety leaves of sautéed spinach. The dish is escargots in the style of Périgord in southwest France, and the flavors just sing.
My visiting French professor is impressed just as much by the beautiful Muscadet we're drinking from Pierre Luneau-Papin. Sur lie — aged on the lees — it's rich and nuanced. Next comes anchoïade: a garlicky aioli dosed with anchovies, presented in a small French canning jar surrounded by cherry tomatoes, celery sticks, purple cauliflower, young carrots and crisp little toasts so thin they look like chips.
"That's a carrot?" asks the professor, lifting up a slender ruby root vegetable. Next to it is a blond the same shape. "Yes," I tell him, "an heirloom carrot, most likely from the farmers market." Meanwhile, I'm happily dipping vegetables into the unctuous anchovy-tinged sauce.
Since Thierry Perez, formerly of Fraîche and Providence, opened L'Epicerie Market last fall, it's been something of a work in progress. I couldn't get a fix on it for the longest time. Is it a takeout place? A cafe? A wine bar? A market? Somewhere to drop in for a bite anytime? The menu is a bit of a hodgepodge; the place too. But it's beginning to find its way now that Perez has partnered with Sébastien http://www.lepiceriemarket.com/pages/about-us //Archambault, an accomplished and soulful chef from southwest France, by way of RH at the Andaz in West Hollywood.
But so far, other than introducing some regional specialties, which are definitely the best dishes here, Archambault hasn't changed the menu as much as I hoped he would. He's done some fiddling with the tapa offerings and, more important, started making his own charcuterie, something of a passion with the Périgord-born chef.
Those tapas — if you want, call them pintxos, as they do in Perez's Basque homeland — are perfect for a quick bite or for sharing with a friend or two. A thick wedge of tortilla de patatas is Tweety Bird yellow from egg yolks, dotted with small chunks of potato. Sauteed field mushrooms arrive in a French canning jar. They're a little greasy but delicious with thin buttered toasts. Chicken wings confit are salty, sticky, tender: What a good idea for a tapa.
Even the charcuterie comes in tapa-sized portions, but it also comes in regular size, which I prefer. That means when you order the deep-flavored terrine de campagne, it arrives in a canning jar under a layer of lovely yellow duck fat. Made with coarse ground pork and duck confit, it is wonderful on warm slices of baguette from the excellent Etxea Basque Bakery (in Hawthorne, run by brothers John Baptiste and Charlie Garacochea).
Archambault also makes a more sophisticated terrine with duck foie gras served with a plum and fig chutney. Almost everything he's making in-house is included in the charcuterie board, a bargain at $14.
When L'Epicerie first opened, the space wasn't exactly inviting, more like a workaday cafeteria with cafe tables at the front and other tables running alongside the massive U-shaped bar in the center of the huge room. There's an open kitchen at the back and, around the corner, a wine room and shop where Perez sometimes gives wine classes and tastings. Display cases hold an array of cheeses and sausages, and along a back wall a few groceries, cold drinks and such are for sale. Gradually, though, he's moved things around and added some bright splashes of color.
But the biggest change happened this spring with the addition of Archambault as partner and chef. That came about the same time L'Epicerie got a real kitchen. And last week when I called to check if they were open on a Monday night, I was told they would be closing early so that the kitchen could be upgraded even further. All this is good news.
The food is all very casual, very much in the French comfort food zone. You can find pretty salads — like the mix of spring vegetables with fragrant pesto and black olive tapenade, Archambault's rustic charcuterie, and wonderful Périgord specialties like those escargots and a comforting garlic and chicken soup thickened with egg.
And they have the best duck confit around — the flesh is moist and slightly salty, the skin succulent and crisp. And it's served with what has become my little indulgence, potatoes sarladaise cooked in duck fat so there are crispy bits and creamy bits.