The Santa Monica farmers market is more exotic. The Hollywood market is bigger and the new Altadena market more devoted to tiny organic farms. But the most charming place to buy vegetables in Los Angeles may be the Sunday morning market in the Pacific Palisades, a village street lined with flower merchants and fruit growers and bakers of dense sourdough breads. It's just a bit politer, a bit spiffier than the markets tend to be in town — even the strawberries seem to be arranged into neat rows. A dog-rescue operation sits at one end of the market — children greet the animals almost as if they are at a petting zoo. A cafe on the street is called Mayberry. It is easy to see why it might be.
But for some of us, a trip to the Palisades market is basically an excuse to linger on the patio of Maison Giraud, the bistro that sits in the thick of it, and contemplate the nectarines and avocados we've just bought over bowls of cafe au lait and a plateful of L.A.'s best croissants. You may have tasted good croissants, tasted them in Paris even, but these things are phenomena unto themselves, essentially cultured French butter given the powers of crunch and flake and heft.
Maison Giraud has great French toast — brioche made simultaneously crisp and puddingy — and an omelet filled with ham, onions and potatoes that splits the difference between lumberjack breakfast and Lyon, but it is those croissants — and the raisin rolls, apricot tarts and pain au chocolat fashioned from the same dough — that make it worthwhile getting up before 10 a.m. There are Palisadeans who might consider nominating pastry chef Noubar Yessayan for sainthood. There are others who blame him for those stubborn last 3 pounds.
Maison Giraud is the bistro of Alain Giraud, the Paris-born chef last seen at Anisette, a sweeping Art Deco restaurant in Santa Monica that was as close to a grand brasserie as there has ever been in California. Giraud first came to Los Angeles as chef de cuisine at Citrus during that restaurant's best days in the 1990s, and he left to open the Provencal restaurant Lavande, where he introduced Angelenos to beef cheeks, his lavender-scented vacherin de glace and the novel idea that it was possible to eat well in a restaurant with an ocean view. As the first chef at Bastide, he presided over one of the exceedingly few kitchens ever to be awarded four stars by the Los Angeles Times. At Anisette it seemed as if the soupe de poissons, the plateaux de mer, the flowing absinthe would never end, and the food world was surprised that it did.
Here in the Palisades, the dining room, which has the airy, glassed-in feeling of an Eichler bungalow, is in its way a shrine to Giraud. There are huge photographs of the chef as a preteen apprentice, as a young man and as a graying eminence. A long blackboard above the the bakery counter is bordered with the names of the restaurants in which he has cooked: l'Ermitage Messonnier, Le Grand Véfour, Hotel Imperator. His wife's bright shop, specializing in the sunny fabrics of Provence, is next door, nestled under the restaurant's awning. After a lifetime of working in kitchens owned by others, Giraud seems to be saying, this is his place; he is here to stay. In a Los Angeles dominated by gastropubs, reverse fusion, pop-ups and trattorias, Giraud may be the last French chef standing.
Maison Giraud is a proper bistro, sparked with Giraud's Provencal touches — tomatoes, peppers, garlic, artichokes — drawing most of its produce from farmers markets, and rarely less than French. The sturdy duck terrine; the thin, crisp tart with roasted tomato and Gruyère; the lamb with scallions and panisse, batons of puréed, baked chickpeas sharply flavored with fennel; the rare beef tenderloin encircled by a thick hedge of green beans — this is what you find at the best restaurant in a small Provencal market town. It's neither modern French cuisine nor fantasy French cuisine, but the cooking on which France, and apparently Pacific Palisades, nourishes itself. Giraud has fashioned a restaurant for happy Wednesday nights.
A recent meal celebrating cherry season included a smooth foie gras torchon with cherry gelee, a chunky cherry chutney and rounds of toast the size of Necco Wafers; beautifully roasted duck breast with Bing cherries and a drizzle of cherry gastrique; and a refreshing scoop of cherry sorbet. The theme was explored but not overdone. There is a cocotte of the day — an arrangement of duck confit with turned vegetables one night, mussels in cream sauce the next — that tends to be the best food in the place.
But it has to be said: Giraud is one of the few chefs in Los Angeles capable of commanding a large, accomplished kitchen, of producing haute cuisine. He has the training and the background as well as the track record and the technique. It is pleasant to sit in his airy restaurant and nibble at rare seared scallops with soft, braised leeks and pistachio butter, or to dig into a bowl of risotto scented with wild mushrooms and minced herbs, but it is challenging neither to eat nor to produce. It is good, but it is hard not to expect more.
And his kitchen can be haphazard; the salmon with ratatouille came perfectly medium rare while the seared loup de mer with artichokes was overcooked. The soupe au pistou, the ubiquitous Provencal version of minestrone with pesto, is too careful, almost bland, where it should be a garlicky force of nature, a wine killer. His version of poulet a la Nicoise, pan-roasted with lemon and garlic, then finished with vegetables and herbs, is fragrant but underseasoned, the chicken nicely browned but dry.
Still, there is his vacherin glace, a blast of lavender and fruit, which is as yet without equal in California. And when the waiter comes to take orders for chocolate souffles just after he's delivered the entrees, you are unlikely to hold out for a more sophisticated dessert. At these times, even an aesthete has priorities.
Alain Giraud's Provencal bistro in the Palisades is a restaurant for happy Wednesday nights. Plus, you can get the best croissants in town.
1032 Swarthmore Ave., Pacific Palisades, (310) 459-7951, maison-giraud.com.
Appetizers, $7-$18; main courses, $18-$32; desserts, $7-$14; set three-course dinners, $40.
Breakfast, 7:30 to 11 a.m. Monday to Friday, 7:30 to 10 a.m. Saturday, 8:30 to 10 a.m. Sunday. Brunch, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. Dinner, 5:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine.