Parlez-vous brasserie? Three top chefs do
COULD the brasserie be the next trattoria? Three of Los Angeles’ most important chefs say they are either in the process of opening one or are seriously exploring the possibilities.
Alain Giraud, former chef at Bastide (which earned four stars under his tenure), is joining with the owners of Falcon restaurant to open a brasserie in Santa Monica’s historic Clock Tower building in the middle of bustling Third Street Promenade (and as part of the deal he could be opening his own signature restaurant in the near future).
David Myers, chef at Sona, has said he’ll open a brasserie called Comme Ca in the Melrose Avenue space (at La Cienega) that formerly housed Noura Cafe.
And now Michael Cimarusti, chef at seafood-centric Providence restaurant, says his “heart is set” on opening a brasserie downtown.
Until now, real brasseries have been scarce in Southern California. As opposed to a bistro, which is usually a cozy small restaurant serving a more personalized menu, a brasserie tends to be large and busy and specialize in set dishes that change only rarely. Historically, brasseries were 19th century French adaptations of German beer halls.
A French tradition
CIMARUSTI says he fell in love with brasseries when he was working in France. “I was always thinking about what my vision of a perfect brasserie would be, but I never found it,” he says. “There is just something about them: They’re big, raucous restaurants that are easy to be in. They’re egalitarian but the quality of the food can be really high.”
Giraud cites as his models Brasserie Lipp in Paris and Balthazar in New York, and says he thinks they could fill a hole in the local dining scene. “You open up the Zagat guide in New York and you’ll find 20 brasseries,” Giraud says. “In Los Angeles we hardly have any.”
Giraud’s still-unnamed restaurant will be much more informal than his previous place, which he left in 2004 after a dispute with the owner. Giraud says his goal is to serve top-notch versions of classic French dishes with a California twist and at reasonable prices.
It will seat about 100 diners and be open for lunch and dinner; the target opening date is late summer.
Giraud, who says he will not be day-to-day chef at the new restaurant, is working with partners Mike Garrett and Tommy Stoilkovich, who have four Westside restaurants and clubs -- Falcon, Voda, Lounge 217 and Pearl Dragon.
“A brasserie is more standardized than a bistro,” Giraud says. “You can have steak frites with bearnaise, or pot-au-feu or things like that. They’ll be classics but with some twists because we’re in California and we’re half a block from the farmers market and we’d be crazy if we didn’t take advantage of that.
“That’s food I’m very fond of when it’s done the right way. If we do a boeuf bourguignon, we will try to do the right boeuf bourguignon. It’s simple cooking, but with food that has a good ‘touch’ that’s been carefully made.”
Giraud says the real challenge is not creating the dishes, but making sure they are executed at the highest level every time. “Consistency has to be first,” he says. “If you can do a great onion soup, and have it be the same at 10 o’clock as it was at 6, and the same one day to the next, that’s really something.”
Giraud worked for Michel Richard at Citrus and then ran Lavande at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel. He opened Bastide in 2003 to great acclaim, earning four stars from The Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila and being named Bon Appetit magazine’s chef of the year.
Lure of the brasserie
AFTER falling in love with brasseries in France, Cimarusti really went off the deep end for them when he helped his former employer, King’s Seafood Co., open the short-lived Royale Brasserie and Bar in San Diego. That was in 2000, when he was the acclaimed chef at Water Grill downtown.
The relaxed atmosphere and cuisine of the brasserie really appealed to him then, and still does now that he’s got his own Providence, which won three stars from Virbila and was recently named one of Gourmet magazine’s 50 best restaurants in the United States.
“I just loved the whole idea of a brasserie -- it was exciting and fun,” he says. “And it is different from the kind of food I am doing, even though the level of quality has to be just as high. It’s something I really want to do again. My heart is set on doing a brasserie and the perfect place for it is someplace downtown, where you’ve got good walking traffic and a good lunch crowd.”
For his part, Giraud makes clear that his role at the Santa Monica brasserie will not be as chef. “We are still working out exactly what my title will be,” he says.
He started as a consultant, but as he grew comfortable with the partners, he agreed to a somewhat expanded role. But he still won’t be in the kitchen every night.
“One of my conditions was that I’d be involved in the brasserie, but not [be] the chef,” Giraud says. “I’ll design the menu and help with the staff, but I won’t be doing the day-to-day cooking. I could be chef-director or partner, maybe executive chef, something like that. It’s still not perfectly clear.”
As part of the deal, Giraud says Garrett and Stoilkovich will eventually help him open his own restaurant, which he says is still his dream.
“I’m very proud of what I did at Bastide, but it’s past,” he says. “Still, I have the urge to have a place of my own. What I miss the most is working with a team. I left a beautiful team behind at Bastide. That took a long time to create and that was very exciting for me. I think I’m ready to do it again.”
Until then, though, he’ll be devoting all of his energies to getting the details of the brasserie perfect -- to the point you won’t even know he’s not there.
“In a way a restaurant like a brasserie is very impersonal,” he says. “Everything always has to be done at the highest level, but there will never be a big picture of Alain on the wall. It’s the restaurant that is the star.
“I want you to feel the care, but the care done without too much ego.”