They say that when man lands on Mars, he will find a Starbucks on one corner and an Italian restaurant on the other. But, like in Los Angeles, no classical French food.
It didn’t use to be that way. Usually dining out in a fine restaurant meant French, like La Rue, where Frank Sinatra used to hang out. And do you remember L’Hermitage on La Cienega Boulevard, where you might as well have been in France? L’Orangerie is gone, and now Chez Mimi in Brentwood is re-opening as a high-end Italian restaurant. In the old days it was for a change that we would go to an Italian restaurant such as Valentino.
Now we have Melisse, which is wonderful, but too expensive for most people some of the time. We have La Cachette, where a couple of French friends recently told me they had a terrific dinner, but the food is not classical French. And then there is a pair of restaurants in Culver City, including MEET, a real French restaurant run by a lovely French couple whose family are in the restaurant business in Paris. There one can find a number of the more simple, straightforward classical French dishes.
Other potential classical French chefs in Santa Monica have elected to move in different directions. Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois took the Asian path. Joe’s, Jiraffe, and Michael’s, all owned by French trained chefs, have moved toward California cuisine.
So when we were in New York City last month we decided to lunch at Le Bernardin — one of the leading classical French restaurants in the world. My partner Alain Giraud had called ahead so a nice glass of champagne was waiting for us as we sat down. As an “amuse bouche” we were treated to a delicious bowl of salmon rillettes with toasts — more of a first appetizer than a small taste. Then I had a crab appetizer, which was served in a sauce reminiscent of Thai food, and Bonnie had a raw tuna dish with sea salt, chives, and Sicilian olive oil, which she said, was spectacularly good.
The menu is almost exclusively fish, but since I had fish the night before I ordered duck breast, while Bonnie had sea bass. The bass came Chinese style, with a hoisin sauce and real miniature bao buns. The duck breast arrived in a fruit sauce with cinnamon and spices, but no dish was all that special.
We didn’t order any dessert, but were served delicious chocolate and coffee flavored pot de crème with caramel sauce served in an eggshell.
For wine I took the sommelier’s recommendation and ordered an Austrian white (Ott) with the seafood course, then an ordinary Burgundy with the duck. As always, the wines were overpriced.
I enjoyed Le Bernardin, with its soft lighting, well-spaced tables, and barely perceptible music. But I wouldn’t go there often. The menu is too limited, and the wine list is also too restrictive to easily find affordable wines. And it’s no longer classical French cuisine, since Escoffier would probably turn over in his grave if he knew they were serving foods with Chinese and Thai flavors.
Personally I think Melisse in Santa Monica is a better choice, and the prices are about the same.
For me the interesting fact that stands out from this experience is that classical French food in California is almost dead, and even in NYC internationalism is influencing the menus. C’est la vie!
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.