When food lovers head to Paris these days, the savvier bypass the Michelin-starred restaurants entirely and seek out the small, sometimes funky bistros where passionate young cooks are turning out wonderful food at affordable prices. Spaces — and kitchens — are often tiny, menus small and changeable. And the wine list may simply be a collection of bottles lined up on shelves. Many come from small or obscure producers who believe in natural (biodynamic, organic) winemaking. A copy of Alice Feiring's "Naked Wine" translated into French might be propped against a bottle of Chinon or Burgundy.
The duo behind the new Papilles in the Hollywood Hills has taken the bistronomy movement, as it's called, as inspiration. Owner Santos Uy (Bacaro and the even more minuscule Mignon) was in search of a more ambitious restaurant project when he found this space on Franklin Avenue. Papilles is a little bigger than his previous venues, but only just. He also found a chef in Tim Carey, who, like so many homegrown chefs, cooked around California and ended up at Patina, where he worked under chef Tony Esnault.
You have to be something of an optimist — or have rocks in your head — to name your place Papilles, a word that is sure to be a challenge for folks to pronounce and/or spell (it's French for tastebuds and is pronounced pah-PEE). Tucked into the corner of a strip mall across from a Mobil station on Franklin Avenue near Argyle, Papilles feels like one of those irreverent Paris bistros you find in the 11th or the 13th arrondissements. A three-course prix fixe menu with a couple of options for each course costs just $34. The cooking is polished and sophisticated, unexpected at this price range. The handpicked wines are interesting and unusual, even if they're on the expensive side.
A padlock hangs on the iron gate that protects the door after closing hours. Open that door, and the smell of sizzling butter, fresh herbs and simmering sauces envelops the very modest room. The two have tried to inject some charm into the place, but it still feels very improvisatory, with wonky tables and chairs, kitschy paintings and prints on the wall, and an open kitchen that takes up a good third of the space and is none too pretty to boot. Battered restaurant equipment sit under the bright lights. A mysterious electrical cord hangs from the ceiling, a remnant from the previous tenant, a pizzeria. The night's cheese sits under a tall glass dome.
Shelves propped up with old bricks cover one wall, crowded with bottles of wine, about 45 labels (plus seven bottled beers). That's the list. This is not the place for aficionados of the late l'Orangerie or Ortolan. But anybody with a sense of adventure will love this bistro's spirit. And those include Eastside hipsters, wine importers, fellow cooks, Francophiles and, one night, a couple of cops in uniform. Mostly, though, it's an L.A. version of the same kind of crowd you'd find at similar Paris bistros — diners in their 20s and 30s who like to eat well but enjoy a more casual atmosphere and a check that's easier on the wallet.
Either Uy or a well-informed waiter will bring out sliced baguette and butter and announce the menu, which takes about two seconds. It might sound like this: turnip soup or smoked halibut with parsnip chips, followed by hanger steak or Petrale sole and then cheese or dessert. It doesn't take long to decide: If you're just two, order one of each.
Now either ask someone for a recommendation or squeeze past closely set tables to peruse the wine library. Though I'd love to drink a Denis Mortet Gevrey-Chambertin "Les Champeaux" at $210, I wish I could find a beautiful Côtes-du-Rhône or Bandol rosé for $30 or less. I did drink an excellent dry white Hungarian Furmint for $36 one night. But I can't help wishing they'd allow outside bottles for a corkage fee, even a hefty one. I understand that they need to make money on the wine because they can't possibly be making that much on the food. So have corkage; just charge more for it. And if I'm going to drink a $75 wine, they should offer better wine glasses.
One of the first courses is usually a soup, and not to be missed. Right now it tends to be root vegetables, maybe a velvety parsnip velouté with dots of sweet basil coulis or a lovely turnip purée garnished with thin coins of vinegary pickled black radish and a swirl of stinging nettle coulis. The flavor is rich and deep.
The chef does his own smoking almost every week too, so the alternate first course is likely to be some kind of smoked fish — a thick bar of Idaho ruby trout or thinly sliced halibut with sunchoke or parsnip chips as a sweet-starchy contrast. One night, Fanny Bay oysters, three big ones, with an incisive pink peppercorn foam spooned on top, make a terrific few bites, especially with that Hungarian Furmint.
Most nights, Carey has foie gras au torchon as a supplement for $20 extra, perfect for sharing. This is the real deal, silky and irresistibly fatty, to spread on that baguette or simply eat as is.
The chef is well-schooled in French cuisine with soul. He can turn out an impeccably sautéed Petrale sole in pistachio dust or butter-poach a lobster and sauce it with a subtle and silky reduction. (He's a fisherman and knows his seafood.) Accompaniments are well-chosen too. That sole gets red quinoa and braised endive; the lobster, rounds of parsnip and hearts of palm.
Hanger steak, cooked on the rare side of medium-rare, has been a regular on the menu lately, and it's worth a drive across town. Blood-red at the center, it's served sliced in a gossamer red-wine sauce with the tiniest fingerlings and Brussels sprouts aux lardons. Sometimes he'll have an aged New York steak with a deep, beefy flavor. Or pork, with a swatch of beautifully cooked pork belly and the roasted loin.
With so few choices, eating here is very relaxing. Nothing to remember, hardly any decisions to be made. Cheese or dessert? One cheese may be a creamy Gorgonzola piccante or a truffle-scented sottocenere, served with a dot of honey and a few very fresh walnuts.One night the chef made a meltingly tender tarte tatin with a rich, buttery crust. He also makes a mean pot de crème, either banana or a killer chocolate version that's like chocolate pudding squared.
Going with a limited selection that the kitchen can execute in the small space is smart. The menu changes about once a week (check online), though one or two dishes may cycle in during that time. At $34 (not including supplements), the price is affordable enough to make Papilles a guilty habit. I wish they'd rethink the wine policy, though, and as money comes in, buy some less clunky wine glasses.
With so many French restaurants closing of late, Papilles leads the new crop. The location is smart, easily reachable from Los Feliz, Hollywood, even Hancock Park. Wouldn't it be something if similar bistros cropped up in strip malls all over the city? Affordable French food used to be an oxymoron. No more.
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: 6221 Franklin Ave. (at Argyle Avenue), Los Angeles, (323) 871-2026, http://www.papillesla.com.
Price: Three-course prix fixe menu only, $34 per person (subject to change). Occasional foie gras or other supplement.
Details: Open 6 to 10:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays and 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. No corkage allowed. Lot or street parking.