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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Sibille’s La Bon Vie Is a Losing Proposition

Ray Sibille is a famous jockey from Church Point, La. Here’s a ten-spot that says you can’t guess what he just did in keeping with these gastronomic times of ours.

All right, you win. He opened a high-ticket Cajun restaurant right across the street from Santa Anita. And up to a certain point, he did a good job.

Here is that point: The moment when you’ve been seated in the handsome, clubby/homey room with its high ceilings and restful green walls, and been attended by the friendly waiters, and gotten a complimentary plate of hush puppies. They’re pretty good hush puppies, little fried cornmeal bombs with bits of onion and sweet pepper in them.

After that, everything at Sibille’s La Bon Vie falls apart. It doesn’t even make it to the clubhouse turn.

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The appetizer list misses some obvious bets (e.g., no shrimp remoulade) and concentrates on deep-fried things in the Cajun popcorn line. But apart from the mainstream tartar, cocktail and vinaigrette sauces offered with them, and the onion rings, which are pretty tasty in their spicy breading, the fried things are crude, and in some cases inexplicably bad. Sibille’s wife comes from a catfish-farming family, so she should know how to treat catfish with more respect.

The surprising thing is how little Louisiana flavor there is in the food. The red beans and rice taste like something labeled Rosarita. The gumbos are meaty and impressively dark-colored but have none of the swampy or maple-like flavor of dark-fried flour, and (astonishingly) no celery or bell pepper.

I’ve had some OK entrees: a pleasant oyster po’ boy sandwich at lunch, served in puffy pistolette bread (think of it as an unsweetened doughnut without a hole) from the Holsum Bakery in Alexandria, La. Red snapper topped with a slovenly but authentic-tasting mush of crab meat, bell pepper and bread crumbs.

But the crayfish etouffee is a vague, flavorless protein hash in an ocean of butter. You can get it as etouffee , served over rice, or as crayfish pie baked in a flaky crust. Or sometimes, as in my table’s case, you can get crayfish etouffee by mistake when you’ve ordered chicken etouffee .

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And so it goes. Sibille’s steaks have an intriguing spice aroma, but our steak (actually, prime rib; they were out of steak) turned out to be about one-third fat. Maybe we should have taken a hint from the menu’s description of crab meat au gratin as something “for the cheese lover.” The crab meat was fresh and sweet, but it was buried under a bland, sticky layer of melted cheese, which some compared to Velveeta, others to pre-shredded Cheddar.

The desserts include some items made on the premises, in addition to pastries in the carrot cake/chocolate mousse cake mode. The bread pudding may not be the best I’ve ever had, but it does have a real Louisiana flavor with its sweet-tart lemony frosting. Like the pecan pie, it’s what one of my guests referred to as a microwave surprise: warm on top, mouth-burning hot inside.

The most disappointing dessert is the one Sibille’s makes a point of, the so-called French Market beignets . The beignets actually sold at the French Market in New Orleans are delightful, puffy rectangles of dough; you’re supposed to eat them with coffee, an enjoyable, undignified exercise that involves getting powdered sugar all over your face.

The beignets at Sibille’s are nothing of the sort. They taste exactly like those little round cakey balls sold in cellophane packages as “doughnut holes.” The coffee, however (Community brand, from Baton Rouge), is excellent.

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This is one for the books, or for the bookies. What would you bet that a couple from Louisiana could sink a bundle into a restaurant, import their spices and bread and seafood from back home, and make such a mess of it?

On second thought, no bet. I couldn’t figure those odds.

Sibille’s La Bon Vie, 181 Colorado Place, Arcadia ; (818) 821-9004. Open for lunch Monday and Wednesday through Friday, for dinner Wednesday through Monday; closed Tuesday. Full bar. Free valet parking. American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $40 - $70.


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