A smooth second act

Times Staff Writer

Already late, I thrummed the steering wheel, frustrated, as bicycles smugly sailed on by. Anyone on foot could have outpaced me. Nothing to be done. So I amused myself by checking out the windows of the shops along the boulevard, taking in L.A. Eyeworks' eye-catching window, the vintage scientific paraphernalia at Empirica, the cutting-edge Italian lamps displayed in another shop.

At Crescent Heights, I duly noted the demise of Stroud's linen outlet and the fact that Pastis, the reliable French bistro next door, had taken down its kitschy painted sign and put up another. Now the name "PASTIS" loomed overhead in the acid-green typeface typical of vintage Pastis bottles. I hadn't been there in a while, and I decided to check in on Pastis later that night.

The modest bistro has long been a favorite with L.A.'s French community, but unlike the Little Door or Les Deux Cafes, two other French hangouts, there's really no scene to speak of at Pastis -- just decent food at moderate prices, and a relaxed atmosphere. Most nights tables are filled with an eclectic crowd drinking, eating and talking nonstop. On the sound system, the Cape Verde singer Cesaria Evora is as likely to be playing as techno French pop or Paris dance hall music from the '20s.

To be honest, I've always enjoyed the atmosphere more than the food. The decor was a faithful re-creation of the kind of bistro you might find in the back streets of Nice or Marseilles, a pastiche of vintage travel posters, iron chandeliers and scarred country tables.

The first time I walked in, I immediately recognized the owner, Arnaud Palatan. He's the French guy with the great eye I'd seen bargaining for quirky paintings and objets at local flea markets. At Pastis, he is a warm, energetic presence, who answers the phone, greets diners and steps in to pour a wine or take an order.

Paris modern

On my return trip to Pastis, I found the sign was not the only change. The interior had a makeover, too. The patina and romance had been replaced by a more contemporary feeling. The walls are now a deep burnt orange and cream, and at the edges of the room someone has painted figures reminiscent of Matisse's cut paper period. A row of tall stools has replaced the wine boxes stacked in front of the minuscule bar.

The menu has evolved, too. A single sheet clipped to a board now lists a series of petites assiettes (small plates), followed by a handful of more substantial dishes. Much of it sounds a lot more interesting than the old menu. To start, you could order a platter of charcuterie, which includes a couple of house-made pates with an appealing rustic character. In France, this would be great picnic fare.

The bread, I hate to say, is very French, too, with a pale tan crust and cottony interior, typical of the kind of baguette you find at nondescript boulangeries. It serves perfectly well, though, for dipping into the butter pooled beneath the escargots. These are particularly delicious "wild" snails, not like the usual rubbery ones, and prepared the traditional way with a drop of the bistro's namesake pastis, the anise-flavored liqueur.

Purple artichokes, baby leeks

Baby purple artichoke salad is worth noting, too. The slivered artichokes blanket the plate, and a fluff of greens sits on top, corralled by a pink slice of prosciutto. Braised baby leeks tied with a piece of chive to make a pretty bundle are surrounded by a splash of crimson beet vinaigrette. I love the flavors, but the time I tried it, the leeks were cooked so long you could practically cut them with a spoon.

But already, what we've had is much better than what I remember. The menu seems more inspired, less tradition-bound. But then, almost any time I've been to Pastis, I've had a different experience. The food is erratic -- partly because most of its young chefs have stayed just long enough to find the next step up in the career. But now, Katia Soujol, a young chef from Marseilles, has settled in for more than a year. And the new menu, with its playful take on classic French food, is more her style.

Her best dish may be roasted rabbit stuffed with chorizo. Rabbit is usually bland, but the salt and spice of the chorizo stuffing and a scattering of fava beans and black olives make it very tasty. The juices are marvelous for sopping up with a piece of baguette.

What could be a more comforting dish than duck confit parmentier, basically a coverlet of mashed potatoes on a bed of rich, shredded duck confit? The silly decoration of endive leaves arranged in a flower pattern on top distracts from its homey appeal, though.

Pissaladiere, a sort of French focaccia topped with caramelized onions, anchovies and olives, is closer to the Nicoise version than most. But a Belgian endive tarte tatin features endive leaves cooked so long, they're a slippery mess with a shrill, vinegary taste.

The crispy frog legs look like miniature drumsticks set in a ring around a shivery garlic flan. The legs have a delicate, faint flavor, which very much need the whole-grain mustard sauce washed beneath them.

Among the more substantial grandes assiettes, daube de boeuf, the classic beef stew cooked in red wine, is just what it should be and is one of the best dishes on the menu. Another bistro classic, bouillabaisse, suffers from the fact that California lacks the rockfish that give the broth its incisive flavor. But Pastis' version is respectable enough, though much more muted than you'd find in the south of France.

The wine list holds some unexpected treasures, notably a beautiful Cornas "Les Mejeans" from producer Jean-Luc Colombo, a Coteaux d'Aix en Provence from Chateau Calissanne and a Bodegas Mauro red from Spain. Most of the relative bargains are from small producers from Provence or the Loire Valley.

Desserts are straightforward and French. The fallback choice is, of course, creme brulee, a particularly silky version laced with lavender, which can be something of an acquired taste. Avoid the eccentric chocolate profiteroles (they're really limp sacs of pastry filled with molten chocolate). The standout is a beautiful tarte tatin made with luscious orange quince instead of apples and served with an oval of softly whipped cream flavored with anise.

If you don't have much of a sweet tooth, order the fig carpaccio on the petites assiettes section of the menu. Luscious, sliced black figs with rosy centers entirely cover a plate. Drizzled with honey and with a disk of warm goat cheese in the middle, it makes a thoroughly satisfying end to a meal.

No one is ever in a rush at Pastis. People tend to linger, sipping wine or espresso, whiling away the evening. On the front patio, people smoke, critique the latest film or relationship, and manage to make this spot on Beverly Boulevard feel like somewhere in France.

*

Pastis

Rating: * 1/2

Location: 8114 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 655-8822.

Ambience: Relaxed and informal bistro with lively French atmosphere, an eclectic crowd and a new menu of small and large plates from a young Marseillaise chef.

Service: Attentive and remarkably friendly.

Price: Appetizers, $6 to $11; main courses, $15 to $25; desserts, $6.

Best dishes: Charcuterie, braised baby leeks, purple artichoke salad, braised rabbit stuffed with chorizo, duck confit parmentier, daube de boeuf, rib-eye steak, black fig carpaccio, creme brulee, quince tarte tatin.

Wine list: Modest, fairly priced wine list. Corkage, $10.

Best table: The country table in front of the French windows.

Special features: Prix-fixe wine-tasting dinners are once a month, $50 per person.

Details: Open daily for dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 6 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m. Wine and beer. Valet parking, $3.50.

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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