Casual French With a Sunny Attitude

Chez Helene lasted 11 years at its spot on South Beverly Drive with few changes in the menu or cooking. But in the year since Mimi Hebert sold her French Canadian restaurant, new owner Jean De Noyer (who also runs Le Colonial in West Hollywood) has already switched chefs, concepts and names (the last twice). This isn't as unusual as it sounds. Lately, restaurateurs have been relying on soft openings, in which they launch into business with as little fanfare as possible to allow themselves time to work out all the kinks. I've been subjected to so many works-in-progress recently that even double name changes leave me unfazed.

When Chez Gilles debuted last spring, Gilles Epie, the one-star Paris chef who left L'Orangerie to become chef-partner here, clashed with De Noyer over the bistro concept. Epie was really more interested in cutting-edge French cuisine than mid-priced bistro fare and soon decamped for Chicago. Shortly thereafter, De Noyer brought in French-born Lionel Deniaud, who had been cooking at Ici in New York. The restaurateur also remodeled and lowered prices, morphing Chez Gilles into Bistro K, a play on bistroquet, which means casual bistro.

After four visits, I've had a couple of mostly decent meals. I've had one truly terrible dinner, and I've had a lunch so pleasant--the dappled sun, the murmuring fountain, the delivery guys pulled up front rapping along to the radio, the anxious young chef stopping by each table to ask if everything is all right--that I come away thinking Bistro K is just what this Beverly Hills neighborhood needs. Prices are modest enough that it's not a tragedy if every dish isn't perfect. On the other hand, Bistro K is not even close to knocking Troquet or Mimosa off their perches at the top of the current bistro crop. Of course, not every such restaurant in Paris is wonderful either, so why should L.A. be any different?

What stands out at Bistro K is the charming setting and earnest service. Most restaurateurs struggle to turn nondescript storefronts into something more attractive. Bistro K has inherited an adorable little brick house with a white picket fence that looks like an illustration in a children's book. There are French garden tables and chairs set out in front with potted citrus and ficus trees. It looks like a poor man's version of the Ivy--without the attitude.

Inside, dark caramel leather banquettes and a brass rail run along the walls of the two small dining rooms. Bright gold Gerbera daisies sit on each white-cloth table, lovely against the worn dark floors and the plain wood chairs. In one room, a fire crackles in the fireplace. Reproduction Art Nouveau posters decorate the walls. And a trompe l'oeil cafe curtain of smoked glass hangs in one window. The place feels like a neighborhood spot where Parisian women would lunch with their purse-size poodles in tow. Here, however, the most popular accessory is a cell phone.

Deniaud has put together a small menu of slightly updated French bistro fare at modest prices (for Beverly Hills). Much of it is appealing, workmanlike food, the kind you're likely to encounter at everyday bistros in France. To start, I'd recommend the salad of Belgian endive tossed with creamy Roquefort dressing and toasted walnuts or the nicely cooked asparagus stalks cloaked in vinaigrette and a scattering of diced plum tomatoes. There's also a slightly waterlogged giant artichoke that comes with a sedate aioli. Escargots in Port wine reduction are topped with a jaunty puff-pastry lid. Steamed black mussels (ever so much better than those huge green-lipped New Zealand ones) get a lift from a lovely broth perfumed with ginger. One day I have a wonderful mussel soup with soft leeks and a few nubs of potato. Too bad the pate de campagne is so pedestrian, tasting more like something you'd buy in the supermarche than something you'd find in the countryside. And making it with chicken instead of pork is not an improvement.

At lunch that sunny day, both the Nioise salad and the Cobb salad are first-rate. The Nioise is made with seared fresh tuna, beautifully fresh lettuce, good tomatoes, green beans and perfect hard-boiled eggs, though the single anchovy (wrapped around a pretty bouquet of sprouts) is more decorative than integral to the dish. The touch of Dijon mustard in the vinaigrette makes the whole salad sing. The Cobb is one of the best in town, an ideal balance of lettuce, chicken, blue cheese and bacon with a fan of ripe avocado on top. And who doesn't love steak frites on such a sunny day, especially when the fries are piled high and golden on the plate? The steak is nothing to write home about, but is perfectly fine.

Main courses are straightforward and, for the most part, gimmick-free. A nice roasted chicken in garlic- and thyme-scented juices. An excellent osso buco with saffron risotto dotted with button mushrooms. Hachis Parmentier--basically a tomatoey lamb stew studded with button mushrooms and potato puree piped over the top--is real comfort food. A special halibut one night gets a very au courant presentation, plopped on top of a bed of mashed potatoes so that every time you take a bite, the potatoes gush out the sides and mix with the rich sauce. For andouillette aficionados--and you know who you are--Deniaud makes an authentic version of the infamous tripe sausage. Strong in taste, it is set off with a piquant Dijon mustard sauce and is only for the initiated.

Forays into trendier territory--such as in the "triangle" of tuna with pink grapefruit, green peppercorns and broccoli rabe or the steamed whitefish with shiitake mushrooms and bokchoy--are less successful. Deniaud serves salmon tartare, too, but it's so flooded with creamy sauce that you can't taste the fish. These more contemporary dishes are not Deniaud's forte: They lack conviction. My guess is they're on the menu in an attempt to give customers what he thinks they want.

One thing Angelenos do want is desserts. And this is where Bistro K should be going all-out. Instead, we get a tarte tatin that has a commercial-tasting caramel sauce poured on top instead of burnt sugar baked into the apples. It defies explanation. Pear tart tastes stale one day, slices of baked pear sitting on a pasty, underbaked pastry shell. A special chocolate terrine seems more like a slice of sticky, sweet chocolate mousse. And, of course, there's the obligatory creme brulee. But why bother, if it's not going to be absolutely smashing? Even a straightforward bistro meal deserves a better finale.

Deniaud is working hard--there's no doubt about that. But he and the restaurant lack consistency throughout the menu and from meal to meal. Perhaps he simply needs more time to tweak the cooking in order for Bistro K to become one of those bonnes adresses in everybody's book.

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Bistro K

CUISINE: French bistro. AMBIENCE: Pretty bistro in small brick house with garden in front. BEST DISHES: Nioise salad, Cobb salad, endive and Roquefort salad, steamed black mussels in ginger broth, osso buco, andouillette, hachis Parmentier. WINE PICKS: 1995 Havens Merlot, Napa; 1995 Domaine Tempier Bandol, Provence. FACTS: 267 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 276-1558. Lunch Monday through Friday; dinner daily. Appetizers, $4 to $9; main courses, $10 to $18. Corkage $12. Valet parking after 6 p.m.

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