Petit Amazing

Restaurant work is brutal. Cooking on the line on a busy night in a big restaurant with orders coming in nonstop, dealing with waiters in a snit and impossible customers demands a certain kind of personality. It's a high-wire act--thrilling when you pull those dishes out of a hat, but unrelentingly exhausting. Is it any wonder that many chefs dream of sometime, somewhere opening a little restaurant where they'd cook for 20 people, no more?

That moment came for Koichiro Kikuchi when he opened the 20-seat Bistro 21 last year in a mini-mall on north La Cienega Boulevard. Kikuchi was executive chef for seven years at La Boheme, but that restaurant has always been known more for the scene (and its campy operatic decor) than its food.

At Bistro 21, this French-trained native of Japan can cook seriously for a handpicked audience. In fact, whenever I've been there, at least half the guests have come by word of mouth and are speaking Japanese. The scale suits him perfectly. There is one chef (Kikuchi), one cook to assist him, his wife, Akiyo, in the front and a waiter to help her.

I heard about Bistro 21 from fans of the restaurant across the street, L'Orangerie. They crowed that Bistro 21 is every bit as good, for much less money.

This modest bistro is not the most comfortable restaurant, but given the couple's budget, they've created an attractive setting for Kikuchi's polished French-California cooking. Walls are painted a dusty green. Glass sconces diffuse the light. They've chosen classic art nouveau bistro chairs and have matching stools lined up at the tall counter in front of the open kitchen. Sprays of orchids decorate the white-clothed tables. Occasionally you hear the comforting hum of the espresso machine or the hiss of the hand blender. Other than that, it's remarkably quiet.

Calm, collected, the chef is the slender figure wearing the baseball hat. Akiyo, in a long charcoal gray apron, her dark hair tied in a ponytail, works the front of the restaurant with grace and efficiency. Her English can be shaky at times, but she works hard to make sure everything is just as you requested it.

Kikuchi's dishes are beautiful but not overly fussy, embodying the Japanese aesthetic. They show a wonderful balance of form and color, without ever looking stiff. One night the amuse-gueule is a pale salmon sphere, as substantial as a meatball, in a tiny pool of acidulated cream laced with minced shallots and chive. It's a lovely grace note to begin the meal.

Seared foie gras is on every menu these days, it seems. Kikuchi's is a perfectly seared medallion on a pedestal of cooked daikon, which lends a refreshing lightness to the foie gras' richness. The sauce is a combination of the natural juices and a swirl of aged balsamic balanced, I suspect, with a splash of a more acidic vinegar. His mushroom soup, a special, is smoothed with just a touch of cream. The taste is round and full, the essence of forest mushrooms. Nobody makes old-fashioned soups like this anymore, and it's a shame. His lobster bisque is a purist's version. No cream, just a deep red-orange bisque that's a bit gritty in texture, with a remarkably intense flavor.

Kikuchi is particularly strong on seafood. Steamed lobster is beautifully presented, the curl of the tail artfully arranged on the plate, along with the meaty (shelled) claws and a swath of emerald green watercress sauce. Beneath the carapace is a medley of Japanese eggplant, potatoes and other vegetables. Though the lobster is flawlessly cooked, the taste is a shadow of what it would be if cooked closer to its origins off the Maine coast. I also liked a special of sauteed New Zealand snapper with a restrained gold-yellow saffron clam sauce. The fish shows off the Japanese respect for freshness.

Duck confit inevitably appears on French or French-California menus. Kikuchi's is the real thing, the leg and thigh salted and cooked slowly in duck fat until the dark, sumptuous meat shreds off the bone. Underneath is an austere, properly al dente risotto next to a few gloriously crunchy fresh green beans. On top of the confit are a few wispy salad greens. A hit of vinegar from the vinaigrette brilliantly cuts the fattiness of the duck. Braised whole lamb shank is presented on the bone, with no apologies, in a red-wine reduction and its natural juices. I like the accompanying stack of potato slices layered with mashed potato. If you like magret, Bistro 21's is a handsome fan of sliced duck breast cooked to a true medium rare.

Here it comes as a surprise when a dish is just OK or doesn't quite work. The shredded crab salad, for example, is overpowered by the artificial taste of truffle oil. And come dessert, the choux a l'orange is perplexing: cream puffs filled with a sweet yellow pepper puree. It's hard to know what Kikuchi is going for, but I appreciate that he's taking a chance.

One experiment that does work fabulously is his chestnut creme brulee. The texture seems a little dry at first, then the flavor kicks in. It's a wonderful idea, like monte bianco, the famous Italian dessert of pureed chestnuts and cream, in a creme brulee. Tarte a l'alsacienne is fat apple slices in a lattice crust, paired with an ethereal pistachio ice cream. A slender wedge of chocolate gateau should satisfy any chocoholic. What takes my fancy, though, is the gauzy tuile filled with silky vanilla ice cream freckled with vanilla bean.

The wine list is extremely limited (probably due to budget). There's not much here, and nothing lists a vintage, making it even more difficult to choose. If you want to bring something more serious, the bistro has a $15 corkage fee.

As I write this, I worry that so many people will rush to try this place that Kikuchi will be overwhelmed. Please, a small restaurant of this caliber is fragile. Give it time. Spread out your visits. Have patience. I'm hoping, too, that Kikuchi will have the sense not to take more reservations than he can handle. Somehow I don't think it will be a problem because he has stopped serving lunch.

Bistro 21 is a particular restaurant, not the kind of place to impose your ideas of what it should be. Go with an open mind and let this dedicated chef show you what he can do.

*

Bistro 21

846 N. La Cienega Blvd.

Los Angeles

(310) 967-0021

Cuisine: French-California

Rating: **

*

AMBIENCE: Twenty-seat restaurant in mini-mall. SERVICE: Gracious and efficient, though food is sometimes slow in coming. BEST DISHES: Seared foie gras, mushroom soup, lobster bisque, duck confit, braised lamb shank, sauteed grouper or New Zealand snapper in saffron clam sauce, chocolate gateau, chestnut creme brulee. Appetizers, $6 to $13. Main courses, $18 to $26. Tasting menus, $45 and $60. Corkage, $15. WINE PICKS: 1994 Domaines Schlumberger Pinot Blanc, Alsace; 1998 Terrabianca Piano del Cipresso, Tuscany. FACTS: Dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Parking lot in front.

Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.

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