Phil and I squeeze into a small table against the banquette in La Frite’s small, tightly packed dining room in Sherman Oaks. The wood paneling is dark, the propeller fans whir, the light is amber. There’s etched glass, a stylish black-and-yellow color scheme and something anachronistic, almost nostalgic in the air.
La Frite is a classic Franco-American cafe--the awning over the bar even reads Cafe Americaine--and it dates back to an era when escargots and ratatouille defined French food to most of us Americans.
It’s a familiar, cozy restaurant; there’s no scene, no pretensions, no edge here, and the capacity crowd it attracts ranges from senior citizens to young, hip, on-the-job friends. It’s a very likable place, and personally reminds me of more innocent days when Hemingway was my favorite writer, Audrey Hepburn was a movie star and my answer to the question “Where in the world would you like to be right now?” was always, without hesitation, PARIS!, where I imagined I’d see Maurice Chevalier dancing on bridges over the Seine.
Phil, who’s hungry, has a less speculative take on his surroundings. He says, “I bet you can get a good onion soup here, the kind with lots of cheese melted on top. . . .”
And, indeed, La Frite’s mini-crock of full-flavored onion soup sealed under hot, ropy cheese is a classic. In terms of popularity, it runs neck and neck with a definitive, excellent Caesar salad. As good as this salad is, it’s no big production number; nobody comes to our table and pounds and toils and tosses; the waitress brings it out already assembled in a humble wooden bowl and serves our first helpings (we order half a Caesar for two substantial dinner salad-size portions). The romaine lettuce is dressed with a clean lemony rinse in combination with a rich egginess. The croutons both soak up the dressing and stay crunchy. The anchovy and garlic are present but subtle. In short, as Colman Andrews noted in a recent Sunday Times, this is one of the best Caesars in the L.A. area.
The appetizers we try are all good. The snails are chewy, earthy and well-matched with mushroom caps and garlic butter with ground green herbs. An excellent smoked salmon comes with toast points, a generous amount of capers and thin slices of sharp onion. One night, there are round, well-browned crab cakes in a light lemon sauce. While the crab flavor, after all that breading, frying and saucing, is faint, it’s also tantalizing and compels us to take bite after crunchy bite.
Rack of Lamb and Ratatouille
Most entrees are served with our tiresome but healthy old friends, broccoli and carrots. The rack of lamb, cut into chops, is tender and well-sauced and wonderfully full-flavored, but the duck, swimming in an acidic orange sauce, is overcooked, tough and not crisp enough. The roast chicken, half marinated in lime, is a tantalizing roasty brown--but it’s also overdone and dry. The Italian sausages on ratatouille are hearty, satisfying and particularly appealing on these chilly autumnal evenings. It almost goes without saying that the French fries are golden, crisp, thin and, well, parfaites.
Dessert pastries are made just down the street at La Frite’s offspring, L’Express; we like the pumpkin pie and a rich, dark, sweet chocolate raspberry cake. Although we think the homemade ice cream is creamy smooth and top-notch, we’ve never understood the attraction of profiteroles and don’t understand it now. The ice cream and chocolate syrup, whipped cream and nuts are great, but the tough pieces of torn-up cream puff casing are too big to fit in our mouths and too tough to cut with our spoons. And our steak knives had disappeared with our dinner plates. We give up wrestling with them and close the meal on a happy note with excellent cafe au lait.
(Recommended dishes: onion soup, $4; Caesar salad, $7.50 (half $4); lamb chops, $14; Italian sausages, $11.)
La Frite, 15013 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 990-1791. Open for lunch Mondays through Fridays from 11 a.m.; dinner nightly from 5 p.m.; brunch Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. MasterCard, Visa and American Express accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$45.