Casual, Cheaper--and French

The French are trying to change their image in this town--at least when it comes to food. Rightly or wrongly, their restaurants are considered stuffy and overpriced compared to the fun-loving Italians. Now, it seems, the French are trying to show they can loosen up too. We're seeing more and more casual, bistro-style places, less and less pricey haute cuisine , considered too risky in this economy.

Squeezed into the narrow Melrose Avenue space that was the original Border Grill, Bardo is the newest of the bistro wave. Inside, there's a newly installed molded-tin ceiling; oversized '30s advertising posters hang on the walls. The front has been opened up to make room for several outdoor tables, smack in the middle of Melrose's central preening district.

The chef, Jean-Claude Seruga, put together a simple menu. There are things like duck pate , escargots and seared salmon salad to start. Fettuccine with mussels, clams and shrimp comes in a rich pesto emulsion. Duck-and-veal ravioli, skirt steak and lamb brochettes are some of the other choices. It's all fine, casual eating, but nothing that will change the course of restaurants in Southern California. For that, we'll have to wait for the economy to improve, because the best French cooking--even the homey, rustic stuff--doesn't come cheap.

* Bardo, 7407 1/2 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 653-7282. Pasta and entrees, $9-$15.50.

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