Roma Via Paris is one of the sleepers of the year. Chef-owner Joseph Abrakijo comes from Avignon in the south of France, and the name of the place reflects his taste for combining French and Italian flavors; co-chef Christian Vare formerly worked at the legendary Parisian restaurant Fouquet’s on the Champs Elysee. These two turn out some of the best medium-priced bistro food anywhere in the county.
Just don’t expect the usual bistro brass railings and fin-de-siecle appointments. The style of this charming, ramshackle place (sandwiched between two Universal City sound studios) is best described as thrift store Deco: cement floor, faded ochre wall paint, dull crystal chandelier, shiny wooden tables and original posters from French film classics such as “Les Enfants du Paradis” and “Mepris.” It’s the closest you can get to Cannes without jet lag.
The waitresses, Micheline and Isabella, have accents with a lilt falling somewhere between Juliette Binoche and Maurice Chevalier.
First you’re served country white bread and a plate of purple elixir poured from a large bottle. The purple stuff turns out to be red wine vinegar and olive oil, sesame seeds, mountain oregano and a Moroccan spice mixture.
If the chefs lack anything in technique, they more than make up for it with passion. A starter of seared ahi framed in roasted red pepper and arugula leaves is most memorable for dollops of deliciously salty olive relish (tapenade) on each piece. For the vegetarian grape leaves farci, each leaf is neatly rolled around a tempting mixture of rice and chopped garbanzos.
The crab cakes aren’t firm--they practically fall to mush when you crack their crusty exteriors--but they are flavorful enough, and the green peppercorn sauce accompaniment adds even more richness than necessary. There’s a workmanlike appetizer of asparagus and mixed greens wrapped in Scottish smoked salmon. The homemade pistachio duck terrine, served with candied shallots, is more duck meat than duck liver.
If you want more traditional bistro-style appetizers, you can get a nice onion soup without too much cheese, a dish of endive with pears and roasted walnuts in a homemade blue cheese dressing, or a simple but judicious mesclun salad dressed with walnut oil and wine vinegar.
This wouldn’t be the Valley without a pasta menu. The long, thick noodle perciatelli is the one I like best. I had mine topped with olives, capers, tomato sauce and oregano, making it sort of a poor man’s puttanesca. Linguine with shrimp, squash, spinach and feta cheese is unusual and wholly satisfying. The richest pasta is the appealing farfalle with grilled chicken, sweet peas and a ground walnut sauce.
Entrees are where the French-Italian concept comes together. Pan-roasted pork chops have a filling of salty Italian pecorino cheese--with the very French touch of fresh tarragon. There’s a hint of balsamic vinegar on the lamb chops in an oregano jus.
The best entree, fresh monkfish, is a filet of fish cut into the shape of a lobster tail and presented in fanned slices. The accompanying lobster curry sauce and basmati rice add an exotic note. The most French entree is probably the tender filet mignon in a meat glaze sauce made with red Rhone wine.
Roma Via Paris does not sell wine, but the restaurant does not charge corkage if you bring your own. Among the good, rustic-tasting desserts are a selection of gorgeous fruit tarts with hard pastry shells, liqueur-flavored custard centers and sliced, glazed fruits like blackberry or strawberry on top. Also worth a try are the deliciously creamy boules of homemade ginger ice cream, and a classic chocolate mousse, rich with egg yolks and cream.
Finish with a properly bitter, foamy cappuccino, fortunately more like the kind you’d find in Rome than in Paris.
Roma Via Paris; 3413 Cahuenga Blvd. W., Universal City. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri., dinner 6-10 p.m. Mon.-Sat. Dinner for two, $33-$49. No alcoholic beverages. Parking lot. All major cards. (213) 882-6965.