After months of anticipation and delays from contractors and inspectors, the well loved but old-fashioned Dante’s in Pacific Palisades has morphed into the new, modern Maison Giraud.

The space, designed by local architect Cosimo Pizulli, is sparse, but warm and inviting, with lots of light and a high ceiling. The focus is on the bakery with its products plainly visible on trays in a glass cabinet. There is outside seating, and a little French products store named Lavender Blue run by the chef’s wife Catherine in the adjacent space, featuring beautiful French table linens.

Chef Alain Giraud himself is an icon in the restaurant business. He was born in Paris to a family of restaurateurs, and worked at some of the most prestigious sites in France. In 1988, he moved to the United States, and by 1995 he was voted “Chef of the Year” by the Club Culinaire Francais.

In 2002, Giraud launched Bastide restaurant in Los Angeles, which received an unprecedented four-star review in the Los Angeles Times. A number of national awards followed, and in 2003 Giraud became the first chef in the western United States to receive the prestigious French Gold Medal of Tourism.

Maison Giraud is not the same kind of high-end French restaurant that made Giraud famous. It’s a more “down-to-earth” neighborhood place with fresh croissants and coffee in the morning, seasonal dishes at lunch and dinner, and a wide selection of take-out foods. The emphasis is on creating a neighborhood meeting spot, which is open seven days a week, where straight-forward provincial French food and top-notch products are served in a friendly atmosphere.

As a friend and advisor to the chef, I was invited to a couple of the “test” breakfasts and dinners he put on before opening, designed primarily to train the staff. My wife and I live in France part of the year, and when there one of my great joys is my morning walk to the local patisserie for coffee and croissant, which I’ve always claimed could not be duplicated in the States. But now I know better. If anything, the coffee and croissants I had at Maison Giraud were better than in France.

Dinner was a mixed blessing. The food was superb. My wife ordered vegetable soup to start, and it was served in a soup tureen with a ladle, so that it stayed hot and could be served a bit at a time. There was enough for a full meal, and it was delicious. The vegetable salad served to my friend next to me looked beautiful, with small colorful mixed vegetables glistening on a plate that looked so good I had trouble not reaching over for a few bites. I started with mushroom risotto, which was much more flavorful than I’ve ever had in Italian restaurants. That was followed by a roast chicken. The chicken, with its crispy skin and sliced white meat, was tender and cooked to perfection — much better than the pre-cooked chickens we often take home from the supermarket.

Perhaps the most interesting dish I saw at dinner was the “cocotte.” A cocotte in French refers to a bowl of a particular shape, and it can contain any one of a number of preparations, typically some type of stew. This one was a monkfish stew, and my friend that ordered it pronounced it to be one of the best things he ever ate. One hopes that the cocotte on Maison Giraud’s menu will change from time to time from one stew to another.

The wine served in little carafes was a very pleasant and flavorful cote du Rhone from Delas, just the kind of wine we typically order in France.

The desserts were too good to pass up, and I couldn’t resist a few bites of the chocolate hazelnut cake.

During the test dinners the service was too slow, the music uneven, and the lights too bright. As always when a restaurant is getting up to speed, there are a number of problems to be resolved. But my guess is that within a week or so of opening, when the staff is stable and trained, and the wine list gets up to speed, this will be one of the hottest spots in town. I already noticed it was jammed at one of the test breakfasts and the staff couldn’t keep up with the crowds, and that’s before it’s officially open.

Maison Giraud promises to be a great addition to the restaurant scene on the Westside, and will no doubt attract many of the famous entrepreneurs and industry people who live in the Palisades. I hope I can get a table from time to time.

If You Go

Maison Giraud

1032 Swarthmore Ave.

Pacific Palisades, Calif.

90272

(310) 459-7561

www.maison-giraud.com

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 mervynhecht@yahoo.com.

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