The Review: La Cachette Bistro in Santa Monica

Restaurant Critic

After 15 years, La Cachette, “the hideaway,” is no longer hiding out in Century City. Chef-owner Jean-Francois Meteigner suffered years of roadwork on Santa Monica Boulevard that made his French restaurant difficult to get to. And yet now that traffic is rushing by on the boulevard in front, he has decided to pick up and move to the city of Santa Monica and at the same time retool the restaurant as -- take a wild guess -- a bistro.

La Cachette Bistro now occupies a space on Ocean Avenue just down the street from the Viceroy hotel. Cheerful red- and-white checked bistro chairs are clustered beneath an imposing red awning on a broad sidewalk terrace. Inside, vintage French posters hang on hazelnut wood walls. A small bar breaks up the space with banquette seating and tables on either side and at the very back, another dining room. The décor says it all: This is a contemporary French bistro without any pretense at re-creating the past.

It’s no secret that La Cachette’s menu in recent years wasn’t as compelling as it was when Meteigner opened in 1994. But with this move, you’d think he would jump at the chance to reinvent himself and his restaurant. He does have lower prices. He’s doing more charcuterie, and he’s added a handful of bistro classics to the menu. But, in the end, La Cachette the bistro feels very similar to La Cachette the restaurant.

With fine dining on the wane, Meteigner is bending with the times and going slightly more downscale, like his French colleagues, Ludovic Lefebvre (recently playing at Royal/T in Culver City) and Alain Giraud at Anisette. But he hasn’t completely embraced the new spirit.

A few good dishes

Don’t get me wrong. You can have a perfectly acceptable meal here, but probably not much more, if you stick to the charcuterie and raw bar to start. Well-seasoned organic beef tartare is served with baked potato chips (for the calorie-conscious?), but the chips don’t work as well as simple toasts. He also has the house-cured smoked trout dish with warm potato salad I loved at La Cachette, and you can get a fine smoked salmon plate with corn blinis.

But the large menu has more misses than hits. Salads are overdressed, and I can’t believe he is still inflicting truffle oil dressing on endive, blue cheese and walnut salad. Or how unattractive the beet, avocado and tomato tower is, not to mention boring. And here comes that truffle oil again, this time on ahi tuna. The combination is so misguided it’s mind-boggling.

Despite the mostly lackluster fare, lots of people seem to be having a good time. The place is convivial, and busy. Service, though, is impersonal and almost rushed. The waiter is gone in a flash, but if you ask a question, you can get an answer. And the food doesn’t dawdle. I almost felt like I was at a banquet, it was served so efficiently.

We were happy sharing a main course of “eco mussels” (whatever that is) with plenty of white wine, cream and saffron broth for dipping your bread. Bouillabaisse has the usual problem: It doesn’t taste like bouillabaisse. It’s wan and bland compared with the real thing. Enough said.

At La Cachette, Meteigner worked hard to belie the notion that French food is heavy. Here, his soups are advertised as nondairy, as if that were a recommendation when it means sacrificing real flavor. It’s not enough to make the case for a tomato soup with the consistency of tomato sauce embroidered with a few shiitake mushrooms.

And choucroûte? Don’t expect the usual heap of sauerkraut crowned with wonderful rustic sausages and long-cooked pork. Meteigner’s is a much daintier affair, made with lightly smoked fresh cod and salmon sausage on a bed of fennel sauerkraut, a perfectly valid idea, just not very exciting.

I tried the veal scaloppine in three-mustard sauce, which is better than you get at many Italian restaurants. It’s fine, maybe a touch floury, but basically OK. I felt about the same about the buffalo short ribs with coffee rub and Cabernet jus. Interesting sounding, but in the end, not very memorable. And that’s the problem with so much of the food here. It doesn’t have enough personality or focus.

The traditional side

So much for the creative. On my next visit, I determined to stick with the traditional French dishes, but that didn’t help either. Coq au vin is made with dark meat (it holds up to the stewing better than white) but still is merely ordinary. And the boeuf bourguignon that won American cooks over to Julia Child’s side in the ‘60s shows just as poorly. It’s simply hunks of stewed beef in a red wine sauce that tastes almost the same as the coq au vin’s.

Cassoulet is a mishmash of dried-out beans with a little duck confit, sausage and lamb. Granted, cassoulet is never going to be a light dish, but this one doesn’t redeem itself with the seductive earthy flavors that make it one of the classics of southwestern French cuisine.

I’m wondering what is going on until I taste that night’s special. The stew of lamb shoulder with lamb sausage over couscous is delicious. It’s as if someone in the kitchen had decided to invest the effort to make this one dish sing. And for that I’m grateful. The stew disappears while the other main courses are barely touched.

The bistro serves more than 20 wines by the 15-ounce carafe, and that even includes two Champagnes. The bottle list, of course, is much more extensive and includes some wines -- not many -- under $30. My pick: the Chateau d’Aydie Madiran at $44. There’s also a small but choice list of beers on offer.

Desserts follow the same arc as the rest of the menu. They include a classic apple tart, a rum-drenched baba, and for a little fun, a single-portion baked Alaska. They’re good enough, but not in any way exceptional.

Though Meteigner professes to be excited about a bistro, the food shows his heart really doesn’t seem to be in it. Going bistro doesn’t have to mean going strictly traditional. Paris is full of spots opened by inventive young chefs who once worked at Michelin-starred restaurants.

But if you’re going to open a bistro, you have to do it with conviction. And that’s one thing this kitchen lacks.