The House That Gilles Built


In case you hadn’t noticed, Chez Helene, that sweet little French Canadian fixture on South Beverly Drive, is now Chez Gilles. When Mimi Hebert passed the whisk to Gilles Epie, the French chef had already earned one Michelin star at his restaurant, Miravile, in Paris and reinvigorated L’Orangerie in West Hollywood. At Chez Helene, he’d barely tied his apron before he changed the menu, and two months later, the name. Chez Gilles is unabashedly French--contemporary French, that is--with a slight Provenal bent and an easy California informality.

When Epie and partner Jean Denoyer of Le Colonial in West Hollywood landed Chez Helene’s space, they inherited one of the few L.A. restaurants with architectural allure: a stone cottage with a tall gabled roof covered with flowering vines. Inside, garlands of dried flowers and reproductions of vintage French posters decorate two small dining rooms. On a summer night, the front courtyard, with its gurgling fountain, feels as romantic as a terrace in the south of France.

These days, the tiny restaurant bustles. Epie has ordered new china, new flatware and serious wineglasses, and he’s contemplating a state-of-the-art kitchen. Since taking over in March, he’s also been busy adding specials, so many that reciting them poses a challenge for the genial waiters.


To start, Epie offers some beguiling appetizers, such as a graceful pink grapefruit salad adorned with mint or a salad of asparagus and artichoke hearts topped with mozzarella. His lightly smoked salmon, cut thick, marinated in olive oil and served with waxy Scandinavian-style potatoes and red onion, is especially good. The silky terrine de foie gras special is ribboned with celery, dotted unexpectedly with raisins and one of the best things he does. But the beignet of foie gras, a baseball-sized pastry filled with foie gras and coated with a sticky, caramelized Port sauce, is heavy and overly rich.

Fish is as French as could be. Here’s one chef who hasn’t succumbed to the supposed charms of seared ahi tuna. Instead, you can have a moist, flavorful piece of John Dory hauntingly perfumed with bay leaves. Or a lobster tian, fresh lobster meat layered on a bed of fresh spinach to form a round “cake.” Crab salad with peaches sounds intriguing, but the sliced (and green) peaches simply fence in a fine crab salad. It’s pretty, but that’s about it. Still, I’m bowled over by his glorious tagine of Chilean sea bass. It’s a Moroccan-style stew, for want of a better word, containing onions, garbanzo beans and lemon confit (preserved lemons) sharply scented with cumin and coriander.

The most soul-satisfying dish, though, is the beef filet with noodles: a tall beautifully roasted filet in a dark wine sauce that’s been reduced to a glaze. The thick egg noodles come wound in a precise coil and are delicious swirled in the meat’s juices. This is hearty bistro fare prepared with finesse.

The excellent roasted veal chop is listed for two people but is usually available for one as well; it’s served with a wealth of pearl onions, French carrots and fresh plump “telephone peas.” Which is the name the French give to peas as big as the holes on the dial of an old-fashioned rotary telephone. Rack of lamb--two double chops coated with pepper and thyme--is fine, too, accompanied by mashed potatoes topped with cooked-down tomatoes for a Provenal touch. But charlotte of lamb, overlapping slices of lamb atop soft eggplant, is all looks and not enough vibrant taste.

The roasted saddle of rabbit is stuffed with spinach and mustard and flavored with tapenade, the pungent dark olive paste of Provence. But the meat is dry and bland (no fault of Epie’s--that’s just American rabbit); the pesto mashed potatoes taste like wet cardboard. And the elaborate plating, with chives balanced like pickup sticks, makes the whole thing look like an architecture student’s attempt at postmodern rabbit.

I’m equally disappointed when Epie’s prime rib special arrives boneless. “People don’t want to be bothered cutting around the bone,” whispers the waiter. Some people maybe, but why should the rest of us be deprived? Nevertheless, the meat is quite a good cut, crowned with potatoes Anna and served with a lovely onion gratin and a perfect bearnaise.


Chez Gilles makes a delightful spot for lunch, either outside at one of the tables along the white picket fence or in the cool recesses of the dining rooms, their windows open to the breeze. You can have a refreshing mesclun salad or wispy baby lettuces and cherry tomatoes the size of pearls in a judicious vinaigrette. Or the watercress soup laced with pine nuts and raisins. I like what Epie calls the authentic Nioise salad, served in a large bowl lined with butter lettuce. “It has real French olives--with the pits,” the waiter warns. Naturellement. It also contains the traditional boiled potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, green beans, crumbled tuna and more than a few anchovies. The sauce, however, is caramelized aceto balsamico vinaigrette redolent of wild Provenal herbs.

For dessert, there’s a roasted tartine, a thick toast infused with vanilla bean that’s much more interesting and satisfying than it sounds. The gros macaron, an almond macaroon as big as a hamburger bun and sauced with raspberries and rhubarb, is terrific. The feuillantine is a light and fragile pastry layered with juicy berries and cream, all under a drift of powdered sugar. But the tomato souffle with lemon, inspired, I suspect, by a brilliant dessert at Alan Passard’s three-star Arpege in Paris, misses the mark. The souffle is too sweet to play against the tomato’s tartness. The one perfect and perfectly French dessert is the thin-crusted apple tart, covered with a spiral of sweet apples, which would be ideal to cap off any meal at Chez Gilles.

Unfortunately, the meager hand-me-down wine list is a hodgepodge of vintages and little-known producers. Epie has started adding more California wines and beefing up the French selections, but this list still has a way to go.

As does the rest of the restaurant. I’ve had some very delicious food and some disappointing dishes at Chez Gilles. Given this young chef’s abilities, it’s puzzling that his cooking here has little of the fireworks it had at L’Orangerie or Miravile. It seems too careful, too subdued. I can only guess that Epie is playing it safe, but the middle ground doesn’t suit his style at all. He must either go bolder (this is, after all, the same person who cooked lobster with fava beans, bacon and cinnamon) or go simpler. It’ll be interesting to see which road Epie takes and to watch this bright new restaurant evolve.



CUISINE: French. AMBIENCE: Charming cottage with front garden. BEST DISHES: terrine de foie gras, Nioise salad, salmon with potatoes, sea bass stew, beef filet with pasta, macaroon, apple tart. WINE PICKS: 1995 Dagueneau Pouilly-Fume, Loire Valley. FACTS: 267 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 276-1558. Closed at lunch Sunday. Dinner for two, food only, $60 to $110. Corkage $15. Valet parking.