The first time I went to Paris, a friend's old boyfriend, a poet who taught English to the employees of the French phone company, took me in hand and introduced me to his favorite restaurants. This American in Paris was mad about simple bistros and lively brasseries. He never spent more than the equivalent of $25 on a meal and I doubt very much he ever ate at a Michelin-starred restaurant, yet he loved everything about eating in France.
I've lost contact with him over the years, but if he ever came to Los Angeles, I have just the place for him: the new French brasserie Le Saint Amour. I'm confident he'd enjoy the authentic atmosphere created by Florence and Bruno Herve-Commereuc. He'd be impressed by Monsieur Herve-Commereuc's commitment to make his own charcuterie and stick to a classic French menu. The waiters are much nicer than in Paris and from the way the women hold their forks and the men drape their cashmere sweaters over their shoulders, not to mention those rolling r's, half the crowd looks to be French.
The cooking here is the kind you'd find in any everyday brasserie in Paris, and like many of those average places, though more attention to detail and better ingredients would certainly improve the food, they would also probably result in higher prices.
Sitting on the broad outdoor terrace in front with lacy jacaranda trees swaying overhead, we could be on Cours Mirabeau in Aix-en-Provence or almost anywhere else in France for that matter. A couple walks by snuggling into each other. An old man stops to sit and talk with his daughter on a park bench. A poodle strains at his leash. This is not the Culver City I used to know.
From my table, I can see a woman framed in the window behind a lace cafe curtain. Sitting on a red banquette, she leans forward, takes a sip of her kir, flirting with someone I can't see. Just then our waiter stops by to announce the specials in French-accented English -- three kinds of oysters, including "Endless Summer" from Baja, an eggplant soup "with dairy," and something else I've already forgotten.
Le Saint Amour is the Herve-Commereucs' second restaurant. Their first (still open, but now no longer owned by them) was Angelique Café in the Fashion District downtown, where Bruno Herve-Commereuc began making his pâtés and rillettes well before the house-made charcuterie and salumi craze that's been sweeping restaurants. His charcuterie plate still includes some house-made pâté, headcheese and other tidbits, even if most seem a bit underseasoned.
Los Angeles has been so colonized by French-California cuisine that we may easily forget what a classic French brasserie menu looks like. Salads include a typical frisée au lardon, but also endive with Roquefort, walnuts and a vinaigrette made, unfortunately, with truffle oil, their one lapse to current fashion. There's also a Lyonnaise sausage salad, which I like quite a lot, just slices of coarse-textured pork sausage with green lentils dressed in a mustardy vinaigrette.
Escargots are firm and plump with that trace of earthiness that makes these pedigreed snails so delicious. And instead of absolutely drowning in garlic parsley butter, there's just a dab in each shell so as not to overwhelm the flavor of the escargots.
Soupeà l'oignon isn't overwhelmed by a too-strong stock: You taste just plain sweet onions with a blanket of molten cheese on top. There's also a tarte flambée that seemed better on a first try than on the last, when the layer of mozzarella cheese seemed too heavy and had congealed. Why mozzarella and not the usual crème fraîche? Maybe it's an easier sell.
At Le Saint Amour, the quality of the ingredients reflects the modest prices. But isn't that what the French have always done so well, turning ordinary ingredients into something extraordinary with deft sauces and, of course, lots of butter? Watch the new Julia Child film "Julie & Julia" if you're wondering what I mean.
Our waiter seems like he loves to eat, so when he recommends the lamb shank, we try it. This is meat at its most basic, a big club of lamb, braised to melting tenderness and served with white beans. The flavor is lovely, but the beans could be more moist.
Unfortunately, similar slips in execution dot the menu. Steak tartare is almost a paste, as if the beef had been put through the food processor: I prefer mine hand-cut and coarser in texture. Yet this version is nicely seasoned, comes with little toasts tucked under a napkin and makes a thoroughly satisfying summer main course.
Another brasserie classic, duck confit, may not be the best in town -- I'd like a crisper skin, for one thing -- but it's fine, and it's just $17, including oyster mushroom fricassee. You can get a fine blood sausage with apples -- and if you go in for that sort of thing, an andouillette, or tripe sausage. This is one of those French dishes that is really an acquired taste but for those who love the earthy funk of andouillette, the sausage is a rite of passage.
Quenelles are another old-fashioned dish, ineffably light fish dumplings that used to be one of the tests of a French kitchen. Instead of the usual oval, Le Saint Amour's quenelle is one big dumpling swimming in a lemon-grass sauce (which quickly develops an unappetizing-looking skin). The kitchen isn't big on presentation, and this resembles, quite frankly, a big white lump. Surprise: It's light and fluffy and tastes much better than it looks. It has a delicate white fish flavor. Oh, and for $18 it comes with your choice of sides: I chose the oyster mushroom fricassee and got a casserole of delicious sautéed mushrooms.
Inside, you can see the chef working his head off in the open kitchen with a very small crew for such a busy restaurant. The plates are lined up on the counter, whisked away by a waiter. In the far corner of the charmingly French dining room, the oyster man slides his knife into an oyster shell, works it open, and lays it out on ice. Thursday nights are special oyster nights with master ecailler Christophe Happillon.
The Herve-Commereucs are gracious hosts, the whole place reflects a calm, friendly demeanor as if to say, "We're French, and this is what we do."
The wine list is limited, but typical of the kind of lists you'd find in France filled with obscure producers and less than stellar wines. And the wineglasses could be bulletproof, too thick for enjoying a truly fine bottle. Anyway, a Sancerre or a Beaujolais or rustic Madiran works nicely with the food.
The simple, well-prepared desserts are mostly childhood favorites like crème caramel served from the deep dish it is baked in. Dig down with your spoon to get some of the burnt-sugar caramel at the bottom. Ile flottante -- floating island -- is a fluffy meringue in a "sea" of custard sauce dotted with slivered almonds. The apple tart has a wonderful deep flavor, the apples impregnated with caramelized sugar too. But my favorite has to be the café liegeois, something like a richer version of Italian affogato -- two kinds of ice cream, vanilla and coffee, scribbled with chocolate sauce, a cup of espresso poured over and topped with chantilly cream.
Thanks to two hardworking French expats for bringing us a brasserie that celebrates typical French cuisine. It's not haute. It's not a hybrid anything. C'est normal.