When a restaurant has been around for as long as Cafe Pierre, it's not reasonable to expect it to be performing with the same panache and energy as in the early days. Most decades-old places carry on without changing a thing until it's too late. Chasen's went down like the Titanic. Orso, with its lovely tree-shaded patio, is a more recent casualty.
But Cafe Pierre's owner, Guy Gabriele, just made a major change -- and I'm not talking decor -- that puts the food on an equal footing with some of the best French bistros around. What happened?
You might remember the Manhattan Beach bistro as a fusty relic of the '80s limping along on middling French cooking and creaky service. What happened is that Gabriele had the sense to hire fellow Frenchman and longtime friend Remi Lauvand as chef and gave him the freedom to remake the menu.
Lauvand is a reliable, highly trained cook with an impressive résumé. He was executive chef at New York's Montrachet in 1998 when it earned three stars from the New York Times. Here in Los Angeles, he was opening chef at Michel Richard's Citrus at Social Hollywood, where his meticulous French-California cooking brought him another three stars from me. Before that, he launched the restaurant at Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara, and most recently, he helped John Sedlar open Rivera in downtown L.A.
And now at Cafe Pierre, he's turning out a spirited bistro menu that should attract a slew of new customers. Add an excellent wine list with very fair prices and crisp professional service and Cafe Pierre is poised to enter its fourth decade in good shape.
Jars to start
A couple of years ago, Gabriele refreshed the decor with a red, white and blue color scheme and what I can only call suburban bistro chic. A blue swirl or wave motif appears next to the name out front, is etched on the mirrors above the red banquettes and dances across a back-lit panel that runs along one wall of the dining room. Unfortunately, the vaulted ceiling is painted sky blue and illuminated, the better to highlight the plaster's cheesy texture. Nothing's perfect.
Your focus will be on your plate anyway. You might start with one of the jars. Foie parfait, served in a French canning jar with a layer of quince conserves on top, is something Julia Child would have appreciated: rich silky chicken liver mousse to spread on house-made pain d'épices, a marvelous dark spice bread. Another great choice is the jar of prime bavette tartare. The raw beef is hand-chopped, brightly seasoned and served with mottled shelling beans. Spread it on the thin toasts and pass around the table. Pigs trotters turn out to be de-boned pig's feet breaded and sautéed and then rolled up in a jar. They're served warm, which I didn't expect at all, but I liked them.
Few chefs serve a brandade as gutsy as Lauvand's. The salt cod, beaten with mashed potatoes and olive oil, is garlicky and delicious, and we ate every bit, scraping out the bowl with our bread. Calamari stuffed with saffron rice and set on a salad of peppery greens is a nice alternative to the usual fried squid.
Grilled octopus with fava beans and shaved fennel suffers from a slightly mealy texture to the octopus -- probably not every night, but certainly on that occasion. Provençal fish soup is too thick and without enough flavor. Maybe it's simply not possible to make a decent approximation of this classic without the Mediterranean fishes that give the soup its deep flavor.
Roasted marrow bone with pickled radish and onion compote is more than enough compensation. Or the spicy house-made merguez sausage with panisse (fried chickpea dough) or the coral house-cured Tasmanian salmon flavored with serrano chiles, honey mustard and lemon.
Now that's a good many impressive starters for such a small restaurant. Main courses may read as predictable or classic, depending on your point of view, but each is cooked with such technical skill that they grab your attention once again.
Take that old war horse, steak au poivre. Here, it's a thick filet of beef dosed with plenty of cracked black peppercorns in a Cognac and cream sauce made with the pan drippings. Now I remember why I used to love this dish. Bistecca alla fiorentina for two is as perfectly cooked to a medium rare as I've ever had it. Cut in finger-thick slices and embellished with fleur de sel and a drizzle of olive oil at table, it's everything it should be. And that bone! We decided to share.
Not many restaurants are brave enough to serve rabbit, but the French would never give it up. Here it's braised to tenderness and served with gnocchi and sautéed wild mushrooms. And veal breast? I've hardly ever seen it on a menu in Los Angeles. Boned and rolled, the meat is moist and much more flavorful than a veal chop. Name anything else -- lamb shank, moules frites, fish -- they're all good, if less exciting.
The wine list, too, is excellent, with lots of great bottles to try at very good prices. Check out the page of "hidden gems" from wine regions around the world, which include a Gulfi's Carjcanti-Albanello blend from Sicily or the Slovenenian producer Movia's Tocai. A number of wines in that category are under $40, some under $30. Sunday through Tuesday you can choose from its "Grapes of Gratitude" list of wines offered at retail prices. The lineup changes weekly. For example, a 2005 Rully from Vincent Girardin, normally $45, is just $30, a Betts & Scholl Chronique Grenachefrom Australia, normally $72, is $52.
Then comes the big choice: Cheese or dessert? I would go with a small cheese plate of three -- maybe an Époisses from Burgundy, a Mont St. Francis from Indiana and maybe a Robbiolo Tre Latti from Italy made with cow, sheep and goat milk.
If you choose dessert, have the apple tart made with See Canyon Ranch dry-farmed Winesap apples, an old-fashioned variety with a wonderful depth of flavor. And, of course, who can pass up a baba au rhum, that tender yeasty cake doused in rum, even if the whipped cream that peeks like some Spanish grandee's ruff from between the two halves of the baba is too sweet.
What has just the right amount of sweetness is this coda to Cafe Pierre's 30 years on the same block of Manhattan Beach.