Each of us has a pretty good idea of the perfect informal neighborhood cafe, the one we'd like in our neighborhood. French pastry, excellent cappuccino and an outdoor table or two would seem to be essential; a scattering of foreign accents and a big corner table around which the proprietor's family loitered would be very nice indeed.
We'd like wine by the glass, friendly and unrushed service and a menu that featured omelets and salads and light pastas for the times we felt hungry. Nothing here would really cost more than pocket change.
Michel Richard in Studio City might be this ideal neighborhood cafe, good for espresso and croissants both at mid-morning and late in the evening after the movies across the street have let out. The few sidewalk tables here offer a superb view of the passing street life on one of the few stretches of Ventura Boulevard where there is any. The clean, airy dining room is quite pleasant, despite the easy-listening music played at rock-concert volume. In fact, the restaurant has everything we want in a cafe, except for good food. Imagine, a tourist trap so close to home.
Michel Richard (the man), of course, is the brilliant chef whose cakes and tarts and marjolaines slapped as many inches onto the thighs of Westside swells as Jane Fonda's Workout managed to pare off, and whose wonderful Melrose restaurant Citrus is now the toughest Saturday-night reservation in town. His modest patisserie on the cusp of West Hollywood bakes the best French pastry around, and serves elegant, chic salad lunches to throngs of Mercedes drivers each afternoon--he's the hottest chef in L.A.!
One might reasonably expect a restaurant named for this famous chef to be at least supervised by him, to feature dishes that bear his stamp. The Studio City place was once as good an informal restaurant as there was in the Valley, with delicious pastas, innovative modern French cooking and terrific desserts. But M. Richard sold the cafe a couple of years ago and has as little to do with it today as Valerie Harper does now with "Valerie's Family," as little as Leo Fender has had to do with Fender guitars since he sold his company to CBS in the '60s.
The restaurant now serves the kind of generic French cafe cooking common to tourist areas all over the world--you know, soggy quiche, tired pates and clear plastic cups filled with generic chocolate mousse. There is spinach salad, fresh little leaves blanketed in too-sweet lemon-dill dressing and topped with rounds of dried toast, which are in turn topped with what the next person you breathe on will identify as raw chopped garlic; no lunch food if you're going back to the office. The house salad is drowned in a similar though less garlicky concoction, as are both the mediocre salad nicoise and the chicken salad, which is also spiked with an immoderate amount of raw onion.
A croque monsieur, the grilled sandwich that is the sine qua non of Parisian street food, is here interpreted in a diabolical Jack in the Box sort of way, as a ham 'n' cheese croissant heated until the cheese sweats but does not melt, and with more ham and cheese layered on top. The accompanying fries are not the crisp, thin frites you might expect, but decent coffeeshop-style steak fries. Pasta "Provencal," deafening with garlic, comes in a sugary tomato sauce flecked with dried herbs; New York steak, ordered rare and served medium-well at best, comes in a sugary peppercorn sauce; a "Greek" omelet is wet and gooey and underdone, and seemed as if somebody had decided that making an omelet was too much bother and had just scrambled the feta cheese into the eggs.
The new owners of the place are Greek, and several Greek specialties are listed on the menu. A fairly standard egg-lemon soup is simple and tasty; a savory Greek navy-bean soup is delicious, the best food in the house. A bowl of soup and a light, flaky croissant would make a fine lunch. But one night the combination platter was a Greek tragedy: soggy cheese pie, a dry stuffed grape leaf, moussaka hidden under a inch of spongy "bechamel" sauce (a taste-alike serving of a Greek pasta called pastichio was, too), crisp filo pastry wrapped into the shape of an egg roll around a filling of grossly overcooked spinach, a stewy-tasting slice of lamb.
The pastries--fruit tarts, eclairs, croissants, chocolate-raspberry truffle cake--are generally competent when fresh (ask), though the mousses and meringues are not; the espresso and cappuccino are very good indeed.
Michel Richard, 12321 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 508-9977. Open for lunch daily and dinner Monday-Saturday. Beer and wine. Parking in rear. Visa and MasterCard accepted. Dinner for two (food only) $18-$28.