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RESTAURANTS : LaFayette’s Kitchen Speaks French Like a Native

<i> Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

I’m embarrassed to tell you that it took me nearly nine years of reviewing Orange County restaurants to get around to LaFayette, the restaurant that Montmartre-born Edmond Sarfati has been running in Garden Grove for the past 23 years. But then I heard a prominent local chef proclaim, “Sarfati is the most French of all of us,” and it occurred to me that I might have been missing something.

The restaurant had been in the back of my mind for quite a while, but it was only after phoning four local French restaurants--and listening to the hosts at all four places rave about the same dishes--that I decided to move LaFayette up to immediate status. LaFayette, I soon discovered, didn’t fit the mold. It had rabbit and Dover sole on its menu--food for thought. So I rounded up a big group one evening last week, and we headed over.

The surprises didn’t come immediately. LaFayette is a big, dimly lighted restaurant--an anachronism even for this side of Orange County. The tricolor sign outside the restaurant is bright enough, but the main dining room is filled with brown curtains and brown vinyl booths; there are crystal chandeliers and empty wine bottles on side tables. If you look hard, you can spot two formal portraits. One is of George Washington. The other, naturally, is of the Marquis de Lafayette.

Soon after we were seated, a tuxedoed waiter handed us menus, and, sure enough, the old French cliches--escargots, pate maison , pepper steak--leaped to our eyes. But then came a stroke of luck. We had brought two bottles of wine, unaware that LaFayette’s list would be gorged with old Burgundies and Bordeaux (not only big-ticket wines, like ’69 Ch. Haut-Brion and ’71 Ch. Palmer, but dozens of under-$40 selections). And that brought Sarfati himself out from the kitchen to talk exuberantly about matching our wines with his food.

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In the end we ordered one of his Bordeaux. And, in the process, we discovered that the man always keeps a few French farmhouse dishes around in case friends drop by. That’s how we found out about his navarin of lamb, confit de canard and beef a la Bourguignon, which are not on the restaurant’s menu. All three are terrific.

Here’s how things work at LaFayette: You select an entree; then you will be served hors d’oeuvres and a choice of soup or salad to go with it. The chef always has perfectly garlicky snails and a dense pate maison on hand, should you want to order an a la carte appetizer.

But unless you come really, really hungry, additional starters are not advised. We could have left happy after the first course, had we eaten it with abandon. Out came cold ratatouille (a Provencal stew of eggplant, peppers, tomatoes and zucchini), an American-style salmon salad and rillettes de porc , a delicious, fatty spread of minced pork.

The soup/salad course is a choice of onion soup, a soup of the day such as cream of watercress, or the superb house salad, made with butter lettuce, a fine vinaigrette and just a touch of crumbled blue cheese. The waiter will be glad to mix you a gutsy Caesar tableside, if you don’t fancy any of the other choices. I recommend the beefy onion soup, as long as you are aware that Sarfati usually tops the soup crouton with American cheese. He will gladly substitute Gruyere cheese on request. (“Customers don’t like stringy cheese,” explains our waiter.)

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Make sure to ask about specials, because these are the dishes that Sarfati loves to cook. Sometimes he has seven-hour leg of lamb on hand; other times it will be something like chicken chasseur (in a wine sauce with fresh mushrooms). Duck confit is duck preserved in its own fat, then roasted in the oven. Order this dish and you get a bonus of sizzling sliced potatoes, aromatically fried in that duck fat.

The lighthearted navarin --braised lamb cooked with baby peas, tiny green beans, new potatoes and pearl onions--is the best thing I tasted here, and certainly the most grandmotherly. The chef’s beef Bourguignon is nothing more than a dressed-up beef stew: chunks of beef with carrots, onions, potatoes, parsley and a rich red wine gravy.

Another day, I returned for the chef’s cassoulet (call in advance if you want to try it). This is a hearty version of the traditional French bean dish; it doesn’t pussyfoot around, like several nouvelle interpretations I’ve seen lately. Sarfati makes it with garlic sausage, braised lamb shanks and preserved duck, then finishes it with buttered bread crumbs before presenting in its enormous copper dish. Plan on a nice nap after you take one on.

As the menu says, you can have fresh Dover sole, entrecote in red wine sauce, even frog legs Provencal. But to me, they are beside the point when you can get dishes with the personality of Sarfati’s cassoulet and navarin.

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You will want to make an attempt at one of the pastries served from the cart. LaFayette makes them all on the premises, and they are all impossibly rich: chocolate-filled eclairs , strawberry genoise layer cake buried under a mound of fresh whipped cream, gateau St. Honore--the last is an architectural wonder of custard-filled cream puffs, shaved almonds and more whipped cream.

So now I’ve resolved to kick myself a couple of times, because I could have been eating cassoulet, beef Bourguignon, confit of duck and other rustic French dishes all these years, which would surely have raised my spirits after a bad week. Like another great general, MacArthur, I shall return. And believe me, it won’t take another nine years.

LaFayette is expensive. Entrees are $21 to $26. Desserts are $5.

* LAFAYETTE

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* 12532 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove.

* (714) 537-5011.

* Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner, 6 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

* American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

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* Times Line(tm): 808-8463

To check an Orange County restaurant by name to see if The Times has reviewed it recently, call TimesLine and press * 6170 For other weekly recommendations from Max Jacobson, press *6160


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