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.
Archambault's cassoulet is the real thing, made with that duck confit, lusty house-made garlic sausage, pork belly and white beans: a real taste of southwest France. Even the burger, made with Angus beef and served on a poppy seed bun with apple bacon marmalade, two cheeses and arugula (it could use a tomato), comes with those delicious sarladaise potatoes instead of fries. Always ask about the specials: One night it might be a tender suckling pig, another poulet basquaise, chicken braised with sweet red peppers and ham.
Dessert might be crème brûlée accented with lemon or a light fluffy baba (yeast-raised cake) floating in a jar half-filled with rum and served with whipped cream and a dab of plum jam on the side. A huge dessert crepe arrives folded in quarters and stuffed with that luscious sweet tart jam. And if sweets just aren't your thing, you could savor a glass of Banyuls or Chateau Suduiraut Sauternes.
Not all of the dishes are as compelling. Some, such as filet mignon with green pepper sauce or a seared chicken breast, must be meant for people who want something more familiar than many of the other things on the menu. I'm not a big fan of the savory crepes either.
L'Epicerie is intended as a neighborhood spot. At lunch, it's filled with employees from Sony Pictures Studios across the street. Happy hour, when tapas drop to $3 at the bar, brings in groups of friends ready to party at a bargain price. During the day, cooks from around the area stop in for a baguette and some cheese, or to pick up a bottle of wine (prices are 20% lower for any bottles you take out). Others are looking for a macaron or cookie to get them through the afternoon.
Except for its size, L'Epicerie fits in with the trend for neighborhood wine bars in Paris right now. Perez has put together an engaging and savvy wine list with very fair prices. For me, the chance to drink Marcel Deiss Riesling from Alsace or a J.L. Chave "Offerus" St. Joseph from his list is reason enough to stop in. And prices for Archambault's cooking are well below those at any restaurant he's cooked at before.
L'Epicerie is nothing if not flexible. It's a handy address to know if you're headed to Culver City for a play or a gallery opening. And a chance to revel in Archambault's lusty southwest French cooking.
Rating: one-and-a-half stars
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality.
****: Outstanding on every level
**: Very good
No star: Poor to satisfactory
Location: 9900 Culver Blvd., Culver City, (310) 815-1600, http://www.lepiceriemarket.com
Price: Tapas, $5 to $8; soup and salad, $7 to $12; charcuterie, $12 to $16; savory crepes, $16; main courses, $16 to $28. Corkage fee, waived with purchase of one bottle of wine; otherwise, $15 per bottle.
Details: Open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Street and public lot parking.