FOR THE RECORD:
Restaurant review: A review of Bistro LQ in the Oct. 28 Food section stated that Nicole's Gourmet Foods, a cheese supplier for the restaurant, and Bistro K, a now-closed restaurant that had been opened by Bistro LQ chef Laurent Quenioux, were in Pasadena. The correct location is South Pasadena. —
It's the special deconstructed pot-au-feu at Laurent Quenioux's new Bistro LQ, and it's a soul-satisfying feast. If only he stuck to such intelligent re-imaginings with his regular menu. But too often the veteran French chef goes wildly off track with oddball flourishes and combinations of ingredients that would have been better off never meeting. Foie gras interleaved with chocolate? Or a marjolaine of foie gras with quince marmalade crowned with a quince marshmallow? Mussels in a dark heavy reduction with huitlacoche?
I wish that they just sounded weird, and really worked. But some of these combinations are so off-key, you have to wonder whether the chef is paying more attention to his head than his palate.
At Bistro LQ, Quenioux is trying to do too much, both figuratively and literally. He doesn't have the brigade of cooks that a Michelin-starred restaurant would have, yet he's attempting food every bit as elaborate and complicated.
He's got a full-fledged kitchen at last and he's reveling in it. But why not make it a little easier on himself by scaling back Bistro LQ's ambitions to something more manageable? And concentrating on some of the dishes he does best, like that pot-au-feu.
Clearly Quenioux has a soft spot for those kinds of grandmotherly dishes: He also does cassoulet on certain nights, though I haven't had the chance to try it. What's best on the regular menu too are updated country dishes, not the overwrought concoctions in which he too often loses his way.
The chef has had a long career in L.A., starting out at Seventh Street Bistro downtown and later opening Bistro K in Pasadena. He's one of the hardest-working chefs I know. I just wish he'd play to his strengths more here.
Quenioux grew up in the rural Sologne, an area of France rich in game. And on the new fall menu, he's got the real, wild stuff, including Chukar partridge, wild boar and Scottish hare. Watch out for the buckshot, the waiter cautions, as my bird arrives. The partridge has a subtly gamey taste, and it's delicious prepared with huckleberries, chestnuts and ribbons of soft, buttery cabbage. Quenioux would have been smart to edit out the huckleberry sorbet, though.
Scottish hare is much richer and gamier, presented in a reduction flavored with maple syrup and Jerez vinegar. That touch of vinegar works well against the boar's gaminess. But why you would crown the meat with an anise tuile and foie gras defies imagination.
In making this space his own, Quenioux has stripped away the mustard walls and nostalgic bistro kitsch of the former Mimosa and substituted walls painted soft cream and sage. The only notes of saturated color are the color photographs on the walls. Everything else is focused on the food. The mood is quiet and contemplative, the crowd more serious about food than socializing.
Appetizers are a mixed bag, sometimes excellent, sometimes overly fussy or just plain puzzling. Tapioca pudding with kumamoto oysters in a yuzu gelée garnished with uni is a beautiful dish with a bright, thrilling flavor. Escargot pizza with garlic confit, chanterelles and parsley garlic emulsion has an interesting dark flavor, but it's too intense to crave more than a few bites. And the crust seems more like pita than pizza.
In general, though, main courses are much more successful than the firsts. Quenioux loves every part of every beast. So when he offers lamb, for example, you get not only the roast chop but also a taste of the sautéed kidney and sweetbread, the poached tongue, and a little confited shoulder. Pigeon comes with duck hearts and duck gizzard pastilla in a North African-inspired ras el hanoutjus.
Both are like pieces of chamber music on the plate: Each bite is different but works with everything else. They're excellent dishes for a red wine from a list that offers a nice selection of French country wines and eclectic California bottles at fair prices.
To end the meal
Quenioux is French, so you don't even have to wonder whether there will be cheese. Yes, and a pretty extensive array from Nicole's Gourmet Foods in Pasadena, some of them raw milk cheeses. I do think, though, that three cheeses would be more effective than seven or eight tiny slivers.
Desserts from pastry chef Morseli are all pretty elaborate. I remember a date tart that's more like a clafoutis with dates embedded in the dough, and achingly sweet.
But whatever you order, it will also come with an array of mignardises -- truffles, little cookies, bite-sized cakes, fruit gelées. I wish I could say they're fabulous, but they're only average, despite all the work that goes into them.
No self-respecting French chef these days would be without a tasting menu, and Quenioux offers not one but three -- a six-course menu, a vegetarian six-course menu and the big extravaganza, the nine-course.
My favorite dish from a recent menu? Hand-chopped venison tartare with a celery root slaw. My least favorite? French toast brioche with foie gras and cotton candy syrup.
In the end, though, the tasting menu may well be the best way to experience Quenioux's food. Though it can get repetitive, it's better paced than the do-it-yourself à la carte option.
Bistro LQ is ambitious, yes, maybe overly so. Here's a chef in love with his métier, reveling in having a full-scale kitchen all to himself and cooking the kind of food that makes him, well, French. Some dishes are over the top, but if you gravitate toward the simpler plates and especially the game and meat offerings, you -- and Bistro LQ -- will do fine.