In Santa Barbara, French restaurants have been closing down one by one, abandoned by diners who are opting for Italian and who share the common perception, perhaps, that French food is too rich and too fussy for current tastes.
Mousse Odile, one of the oldest French restaurants in Santa Barbara, may be the lone survivor--unless one counts Citronelle--and I don't--Citronelle being the epitome of California cuisine.
Inquiring into the secret of Mousse Odile's longevity recently afforded me some very pleasant investigations au table.
Opened in 1980 by Yvonne Mathieu and her sister, Odile, Mousse Odile originally specialized in desserts but soon switched to serving full meals. Yvonne Mathieu, who eventually bought out her sister, serves cuisine bourgeoise , or French home cooking.
The first time I ate here almost 10 years ago, I discovered a restaurant where I felt both charmed and utterly at home. And the food has remained remarkably consistent over the years.
There are certain dishes one can only get at Mousse Odile, dishes good enough to pop into mind at odd moments and inspire a certain craving. Among these I count the celeri Victor ($6.25), a dish of cooked celery, served cold with hard-boiled eggs, anchovies and capers in a tasty, creamy fermiere sauce. I am quite fond of a fine croissant, filled with spinach and sauteed mushrooms. And I love the ficelles, ($4.95-$6.25) Parisian sandwiches on 12-inch-long, thin, crispy rolls, filled with cold sliced meats like lamb or chicken and a lovely mustard remoulade sauce.
I go to Mousse Odile for social breakfasts, for the atmosphere, to meet friends, knowing the coffee will be rich and dark, the fresh bread will be crusty and the pots of butter and jams irresistible.
I go for dinner, knowing the food will be choice and satisfying, with entrees like classic filet mignon ($16.95) in a green pepper cognac sauce, or an amazing rack of lamb ($18.95), cooked to perfection. Always there will be the marvelous vegetables that are the hallmark of the best French cooking. Like any self-respecting cook, Mathieu is not afraid of stretching the boundaries of her menu, and so she might offer a succulent, spicy couscous, a rich tender osso bucco ($15.65) or a tasty paella ($15.75) with more seafood than rice.
Lunch is my favorite meal at Mousse Odile. I can sample the marvelous soups, such as a subtle, creamy vegetable with a hint of squash, or a silky hot broccoli soup with a touch of lemon. Most meals come with the splendid house salad, as simple as a Chanel suit, with only fresh buttery lettuce coated in delicious dressing. Mathieu won't give you the recipe for it, but you can take home a bottle.
Occasionally, I've been disappointed. The duck in a plain pasta recently was too gamy. And a boudin noir-- black sausage--tasted more like salty bread crumbs. But at the same time, we had a wonderful bouchee a la reine --light pastry filled with chicken and mushrooms in a fine veloute sauce, and a remarkably good salmon, garnished with fresh cranberries.
As befitting a restaurant named after a dessert, the ones served here are quite fine indeed. I recently had a marvelous poached pear, perched in a light creme anglaise.
Also wonderful was a moist, moist orange cake with a frosting so creamy it was practically a pudding. And finally, a Christmas dessert of chocolate and hazelnut mousse that now makes me wish for Christmas all over again.
* WHAT: Mousse Odile.
* WHERE: 18 E. Cota St., Santa Barbara.
* WHEN: Monday through Saturday, breakfast 8 to 11:30 a.m.; lunch 11:30 to 2:30 p.m.; and dinner 5:30 to 9 p.m.
* ETC: Full bar, MasterCard, Visa, Discover, American Express. Dinner for two, food only, $25 to $55. Call 962-5393.