STOP AND SMELL THE TULIP : The Room Isn’t Plush, but the Food Is Downright Luxurious--at Affordable Prices
Take the tulip. A vivid, delicate flower, but not a plush one; it has a hard-edged, almost standoffish sort of beauty. Still, people have gone crazy for tulips, even mortgaging their homes for them.
That was a pretty profound thought, if I say so myself, for just killing a little time waiting around for a menu. Most of the time you have a tulip on your table at Tulipe, of course, and these connections sort of draw themselves.
But the part about mortgaging your home doesn’t actually work. Tulipe is probably the most reasonably priced of Los Angeles’ top restaurants. Only one of the entrees is more than $15, and early this year the restaurant started offering $20 three-course prix-fixe dinners Monday through Thursday.
That hard-edged quality may be the reason Tulipe has had to keep its prices down. This room can never provide the cozy, pampered feeling required to soften you up for a truly scary bottom line. It has a relentlessly shiny, bistro-ish feel that indoor trees strung with lights and quaint, unsteady-looking sculptures don’t exactly soften.
The room design must have seemed a good idea when chef-owners Roland Gibert and Maurice Peguet approved it--bright and showcasey, with substantial space for a display kitchen. Unfortunately, the plan cut the room diagonally, so you have the feeling that the kitchen, which occupies the corner farthest from the windows, is staring down your neck while you’re being subtly pushed out onto the sidewalk. The fact that the walls are mostly plate glass adds to the sense of drifting away.
But what food you get here. The menu changes every once in a while; you may find only a small overlap from the last one you saw, but it’s always inventive, beautifully prepared food. When Gibert worked at Bernard’s, he was famous as the chef who got Angelenos to eat pig’s feet stuffed with snails. He still makes that improbably rich and meaty dish, though maybe not very often in hot weather. The pig’s-foot bones are removed and the meat and snails all but pureed, then wrapped up in a thin, luscious pork caul fat, and the result sits in a tiny bit of rich, sticky meat sauce.
Bernard’s was an early champion of lentils, now being promoted as the up-and-coming bean of the ‘90s. At Tulipe, Gibert serves scallops, shrimp and wonderful smoked fish on lentils. Bernard’s was duck-oriented, too, and it’s not surprising to find a terrine (called duck gateau) with a powerful duck flavor or an appetizing cabbage salad with a sharp mustardy vinaigrette, topped with small brown frizzles of fried duck.
A tomato crepe, I must say, is misleadingly named--call it two little crepes, with a pleasant scorched-tomato smell, folded into envelope shapes, filled with creamed corn and tied up with green-onion strings. It’s what you’d call a tiny elegancy.
If you’re hungrier than that, you could consider ordering an appetizer portion of pasta. The shrimp-and-green-onion ravioli are tasty with their tomato-cream-and-seafood-stock sauce, but I can scarcely imagine ordering them instead of the fettuccine with porcini, possibly the most richly mushroom-flavored pasta in town.
The last sounds suspiciously Italian for a restaurant run by guys named Gibert and Peguet, but Italian food seems to be child’s play for them. Tulipe can also make an exquisite osso buco, the veal shank tender and crammed with meatiness, the tomatoey meat sauce tangy and subtle. Maybe it is really a French osso buco (rather, a jarret de veau ), because there’s no risotto or other starch with it, just whatever potato might show up--it might be a crusty wedge of home fries, some diced potato with sweet-pepper flakes or plain mashed potatoes.
Even crab cakes are Frenchified here. They’re intensely crabby, arriving in a sauce resembling a concentrated crab bisque.The Frenchiest entree is a roasted free-range chicken with a concentrated tarragon sauce, like an eggless bearnaise.
These are all a la carte dishes. The prix-fixe dinner, which changes daily, consists of off-menu choices: a soup or a salad followed by a meat or a fish option. You might get a mild Caesar salad with an anchovy discreetly laid on top--so anchovy-haters can remove it, I guess--followed by a packet of cabbage stuffed with a dainty mixture of veal and chard in a slightly sweet fresh-tomato sauce. It’s a light meal but aesthetically satisfying. The dessert usually comes from the regular dessert list.
The menu has quite a few asterisks indicating low-fat, low-cholesterol, low-sodium dishes, which are remarkably good. The salmon (a thick cylinder wrapped in fish skin) on a bed of eggplant puree is very flavorful, the whole thing surrounded by a no-fat meat reduction that tastes like concentrated onion soup. The onion-and-sweet-pepper terrine is light and cooling, with some bite from the dried tomatoes scattered about, and the hot wild-mushroom compote with fava beans tastes remarkably like meat.
The desserts are nearly all stupendous. The apple tart, a thin layer of sliced apples browned in crescent shapes like the dunes of the Sahara, rests in a luscious sauce of cream flavored with apple brandy. Menage a trois is three profiteroles filled with chocolate (dark, white and milk) with a richly chocolate sorbet in the middle. That sorbet is the bright spot in the only non-stupendous dessert, the chocolate selection.
The delice au chocolat au lait et gianduja, a chocolate-hazelnut torte, with a toasted-almond sauce, is spectacular. An unexpected treat is pudding aux myrtilles , one of the health-food desserts. It’s just some cake soaked with blueberry juice, but the effect is intense, almost overwhelming.
This food is not only delicious but also beautiful to look at. I’ll put up with a lot of bright lights and chrome to eat it. Maybe the bright lights are a good idea after all.
Tulipe, 8360 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 655-7400. Dinner served daily; lunch served Monday through Friday. Beer and wine. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $47-$65.
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