Still Setting the Pinot Standard

Just off Coldwater Canyon in Studio City is stylish Pinot Bistro, which could be mistaken for a bourgeois bistro in Paris. Yet here we are on the boulevard, Ventura Boulevard. To set the scene, there's an enclosed sidewalk terrace out front. Inside, a black-and-white herringbone-tiled floor looks authentic, and black leather chairs with striped backs bear the requisite patina. Old French postcards, including one that begins "Cher Therese" in spidery script, are framed above the banquettes. All of which give Pinot Bistro a warmth that is part of this popular Valley restaurant's charm.

The wood bar, with its softly lighted mirror back and an extravagant bouquet of long-stemmed French tulips, appears vintage, too. Seated at a booth across from the bar, beneath mirrors covered with hand-painted literary quotations celebrating food and feasting, you can hear the sound of martinis shaken, not stirred.

Pinot Bistro was the first of Joachim Splichal's Pinot restaurants and, to my mind, it's still the best 5 1/2 years later. The supercharged chef behind L.A.'s posh Patina now has three other Pinots in the L.A. area, plus Pinot Blanc in the Napa Valley. Pinot Provence is poised to open later this summer in South Coast Plaza. The restaurants' logo--a waiter in a long white apron carrying a tray--evokes the bustling Paris bistros of yesteryear and is particularly appropriate as service is invariably accommodating and efficient.

The Valley restaurant is the joint project of Splichal and former Patina chef de cuisine Octavio Becerra. Their menu here has set the style and format for the other Pinots. All include, for example, plats du jour and spa entrees. The cuisine is French-California rather than strictly French and tailored to the tastes of the bistro's many regulars. Fans of Patina, though, will recognize recurring motifs, such as the potatoes in inventive guises, the sturdy reductions and sauces, the touch of whimsy in the food descriptions.

To start, there's nothing more festive than the platters of oysters on the half-shell, set out on crushed ice strewn with strands of seaweed. The selection changes with availability, but there are always at least three varieties. I especially like the small, crisp Kumamotos, Hama Hamas and Fanny Bay oysters.

Composed salads are usually very good. I love the "pear trilogy salad," which includes not only fresh slices but also fat roasted wedges and translucent circles of honeyed oven-dried pear, along with watercress and mache in a piquant shallot vinaigrette. Another salad of wilted treviso scattered with ribbons of fresh radicchio and slices of blood orange is a lovely study in burgundy and white. Edit out the stale-tasting "caramelized" hazelnuts and "pistachio oil," and you'll have an elegantly understated salad. The day's "asparagus in metamorphosis" can be uninspired, though. For example, asparagus stalks paired with tasteless tomatoes--this, when good tomatoes are coming into season! What's more, the garnish of mesclun includes some yellowing leaves.

But then comes Becerra's sumptuous escargots. Instead of the usual snails snuck back into their shells under parsley garlic butter, the plump, succulent morsels are served sans shells in a rich red wine sauce studded with chunks of celery, carrot, whole garlic cloves and rounds of meltingly rich bone marrow. It's a wonderfully earthy mouthful piled onto little toasts. I also like the snowy, sweet grilled scallops threaded on a branch of rosemary and set down in truffled mashed potatoes (though, as usual, I could do without the truffle oil). Pinot's signature French onion soup, a dark broth laced with soft brown onions and capped with French bread covered with Gruyere cheese, may seem heavy as a first course, but just imagine eating something like this at 4 in the morning at one of the bistros that used to ring Paris' grand covered market, Les Halles.

Some of the food at Pinot Bistro is so hearty, in fact, that you're well advised to come ravenous. (Fortunately for the dainty of appetite, the restaurant does offer lighter dishes in the menu's spa section.) The "1992 Classic" stands the test of time; it's a perfectly cooked slab of crisp-skinned whitefish nestled in mashed potatoes whipped with garlic and salt cod. Half a farm chicken coated in Dijon mustard comes with a glorious heap of fries seasoned with garlic salt and parsley. There's also an excellent New York steak with grilled asparagus and smashed fingerling potatoes flooded with an intense shallot sauce.

Duck leg confit, though, isn't crispy as advertised, but it's decent. It comes with tiny French lentils, a few roasted chestnuts and so much diced pancetta that the lentils taste as if they've been smoked. The addition of seared foie gras takes this dish well over the top. Pinot Bistro's kitchen doesn't seem to consider restraint a virtue, so many potentially good dishes are heavy-handed. One night a beautiful venison loin is overwhelmed by a pungent coating of sweet spices.

Like its French counterparts, Pinot Bistro offers a revolving list of plats du jour. So you can have a chilled seafood platter on Monday or coq au vin on Saturday. Tuesday's suckling pig is more like piglet ropa vieja, the soft pork shredded to resemble old clothes, but the crackling julienned skin and the accompanying braised cabbage are delicious. I would drive a long way for a great cassoulet. Sad to say, Wednesday's isn't. The beans are undercooked, and the sausage has the rubbery texture of a hot dog.

Still, I can't help but like this Valley bistro. On any given night, the room is dotted with couples sitting side by side on banquettes, enjoying a romantic evening out. Seated at the larger tables in the middle of the room, three, and even four, generations can celebrate a birthday or an anniversary. As one party gets up to leave one night recently, a little girl twirls in her leopard-trimmed coat, her ponytail swinging out behind her. (Pinot offers a complimentary menu for children 10 years and younger, except on holidays and special events.) Another night, a frail older man ventures out, with great difficulty, for dinner with his nurse and his family. It's obviously a special occasion. And this is when Pinot Bistro shines.

In a celebratory mood, no one would think of skipping dessert. Not when there's warm berry pie with a scoop of soothing mint ice cream. Or a strawberry and rhubarb clafoutis topped with vanilla bean ice cream. Consider sharing the impossibly rich chocolate croissant pudding, a bowlful of torn croissant pieces layered with cream and dark chocolate bits in a wicked Wild Turkey bourbon sauce. For flagging appetites, there's always ice cream and sorbet. Or a plate of buttery cookies.

Pinot Bistro is reliably good, year in and year out, which is why it has become the Valley's indispensable destination restaurant.

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PINOT BISTRO

CUISINE: French-California bistro. AMBIENCE: Stylish French bistro with banquettes, leather chairs and an inviting bar. BEST DISHES: "pear trilogy salad," escargots casserole, grilled sea scallops, crispy whitefish with brandade potatoes, New York steak, farm chicken. WINE PICKS: 1996 Araujo Eisele Estate Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, Napa; 1996 Blockheadia Ringnosi Zinfandel, California. FACTS: 12969 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; (818) 990-0500. Lunch weekdays. Dinner daily. Appetizers, $6 to $14; main courses, $15 to $22; Corkage $10. Valet parking. Takeout available.

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