FRENCH RESISTANCE : Tired of Italian? Aching for a Little Ameuse-Geule? Time to Stop Fearing France.
It’s no secret that French restaurants have been having a difficult time of it recently. La Toque, l’Escoffier and Ma Maison Sofitel took their last bows past year, giving the Italians even more of an edge. Foie gras ? Cassoulet? Intricate sauces? Not many takers.
So it is a resilient restaurateur who decides to bet on French cooking--for the second time, in the same spot. That’s what Paris-born Patrick Gruest is trying to do with a new Pasadena restaurant, Les Arts. In place of his old Fleur de Vin (where the food was a little old-fashioned--tired, even), he’s launched a more lighthearted French restaurant.
“Let me explain what we are doing,” Gruest says one night to a table of former Fleur de Vin habitues. “The chef is French. . . .” He pauses for dramatic effect. Not only French, but just arrived from Lyon. “And what he is cooking is what they are cooking in Paris at this moment, not what they were cooking last year or five years ago. We are using very little butter, no cream (except in the desserts), and all our sauces are reductions.” But the idea of lighter French cooking is hardly new. Wasn’t that what nouvelle cuisine was all about?
The waiter hands us two menus, the large black-and-white a la carte and the four-course prix-fixe lobster menu. Gruest reappears immediately with an ameuse-gueule or “appetite teaser"--that night, a fragile smoked-salmon flan. We juggle morsels, menus, wine list.
We’re seated at a table at the far end of the plain, L-shaped dining room decorated in beige and cream. Roman blinds are crisp and white, the art black and white. The only color is the orchid sprays on the tables. At the baby grand piano just inside the door, pianist Gary Kasayan teases out soulful jazz. This is sophisticated stuff, and I find myself listening more often than not.
Gruest was a financial consultant in France before moving to California and the restaurant business, where he and chef Jean Marie Konnert are making an effort to give us what is becoming an endangered species: serious French food. The chef has labored over his stocks and sauces; the vegetables are handsomely turned, the food artfully plated, though the garnishes tend to repetition. Les Arts observes French niceties like the ameuse - gueule , the cheese course, table-side cooking, a plate of mignardises (cookies and chocolates) at the end. And Gruest has put together a reasonable list of French wines.
The menu is clearly written by someone who hasn’t been in California very long: None of last year’s bestsellers appear. So much the better. “I know I’ll be back,” announces the Francophile at our table before he has even taken a bite. “There are a lot of dishes I’d like to try.” For starters, plump, tender escargots in red wine sauce garnished with poached quail’s egg, crisp little packets filled with moist sweetbreads and meaty shiitake , or scallop-and-leek ravioli napped with truffle juice and butter. And especially the terrific “terrine” of veal shank and vegetables layered like stacked parchment.
Pigeon comes in two courses: the breast roasted and set on a bed of braised cabbage, the legs presented in a vinegary salad (perfect winter food). Beef filet with shallot confit and balsamic vinegar sauce is decent, but the real surprise is roasted chicken, which sounds the least interesting: wonderfully cooked, moist and juicy, with deep flavor. But roasted rack of lamb looks more steamed than roasted, barely colored on the surface. Duck breast, accompanied with lovely candied winter vegetables, has so little flavor it could be anything. And sadly overcooked whitefish bandaged in carrots and stuffed with leeks has the texture of cotton wool.
Cheese? The Francophile and I order it on principle, even though the cheeses don’t look very ripe. They’re not. And the waiter forgets to replenish the bread.
“I’m splurging,” I tell the waiter on another night when I order the $45 prix-fixe lobster menu. “It’s actually a very good deal,” he tells me: a 1 1/2-pound lobster with the main course, another half a lobster in the salad. To begin, he ladles a clear, fragrant lobster consomme over a lobster claw and slivers of bright vegetables. This is understated and delicious. Then comes a lobster salad with subtle shellfish vinaigrette, and the main event, a fricassee presented on fat squid ink noodles and a strangely dank, khaki-colored pistou (the French equivalent of pesto) sauce. An odd but agreeable taste.
This time the cheeses look dried out, so we move on to crepes Grand Marnier. What a good idea: eggy, tender crepes showered with sugar and soaked in the boozy orange-scented sauce, a dish so old it starts to look new again. There’s also a fine, squat pyramid-shaped chocolate mousse and a honey-scented nougat ice cream.
Gruest is still fiddling with the mostly French wine list, planning to add more wines from California, Alsace and the Rhone. He has some decent Burgundies, like the ’90 Chorey-les-Beaune, Domaine Hippolyte Thevenot ($26), or ’89 Savigny-les-Beaune “Les Guettottes,” Domaine Pierre Andre ($34). It’s nice, too, to see some of France’s lesser-known appellations represented, such as Cahors, Fronsac and Cornas. If you want to bring your own, the corkage fee is extremely fair.
A meal at Les Arts has its ups and downs. The kitchen is still sorting itself out. The chef has the technique, but he needs to turn up the volume on the flavor. And the service, somewhat inept and forgetful, needs polishing. Nevertheless, Les Arts’ modest debut--along with that of La Cachette near Century City--may herald a comeback for French cooking.
Les Arts Restaurant, 70 S. Raymond, Pasadena; (818) 583-8275. Closed Mondays, and weekends at lunch. Dinner for two, food only, $40-$94. Corkage $8.