When you are evaluating a sushi bar, you can tell a lot by looking at the tamago, the sweetened omelet often served as a last course. To casual customers, it may be a throwaway, but the consistency and texture reveal a lot about a chef's concentration and skill. In Hong Kong-style restaurants, I was surprised to learn last year, chefs may judge one another on the excellence of their sweet and sour pork, a plebeian dish that relies on superb technique.
And in a new bistro, you can probably discover everything you want to know about a chef by his escargot, a dish that in the wrong restaurant can resemble nothing so much as chunks of black rubber in scented grease. Great escargot is earthy, a little tender, adding a distinct hit of umami to the garlic and herbs. In Los Angeles, you can get truly wonderful escargot at Church & State and at République.
But there may be no better plate of escargot in town than at the new Petit Trois: six fat snails arranged on a custom metal plate, shells brimming with garlic, minced parsley and melted butter. A separate charger holds snail tongs, which look a little like something you might see at the dentist's office, and pronged forks that are little bigger than toothpicks. You clamp the shell with the tongs, prize out the meat of the snail and tip the remainder of the butter onto a torn scrap of baguette.
This can be more difficult than it looks. The last time I was in the restaurant, the actress Valerie Bertinelli accidentally flipped a snail onto the floor behind her. She apologized for the mess (which she mostly cleaned up herself), but I think she may have been sorrier about the loss of the snail. The chef, Ludovic Lefebvre, is from Burgundy, and the recipe is his grandmother's. I would have mourned the snail too.
Petit Trois is the second collaboration between Lefebvre and Animal's Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook: 22 stools and a big open kitchen shoehorned into a former mini-mall Thai restaurant next to the trio's successful Trois Mec. Like Trois Mec, Petit Trois held on to the sign of its predecessor; until you get pretty close, it looks like a place you'd go to for tom kha gai instead of marinated herring or vinegary grated-carrot salad.
Unlike Trois Mec, whose ticket-only reservation policy is nationally famous, Petit Trois is accessible, open continuously from noon until 11 p.m., no reservations accepted, and it's not always as crowded as you fear it might be. (Lefebvre compares it to the snacky, no-chairs Parisian bistro L'Avant Comptoir, which he prefers to the difficult-to-reserve Le Comptoir du Relais next door.) Seating is either along a bar facing the kitchen or along a counter facing a mirror. The music ranges from Devo to French hip-hop. The waiters and waitresses are perfectly engaging but are also happy to leave you alone with a cocktail, a plate of salmon rillettes and your book. If I lived in the neighborhood, I could see dropping in a couple of times a week.
Ordinariness is more or less the point here; the stripped-down menu could be that of a simple cafe instead of a formal restaurant. Lefebvre may have been the chef who introduced Los Angeles to molecular gastronomy in his days as the chef at Bastide, but the kitchen at Petit Trois is a land without tweezers, liquid nitrogen or offset spatulas; sous-vide or xanthan gum, CVAP ovens or any of the toys of modernist gastronomy. His chef here is Sydney Hunter, a compact, mustachioed man who has been with him since he cooked at L'Orangerie 15 years ago.
And the cuisine is the kind of unpretentious cooking you may remember from your first trip to France, when you may have thought you were tasting a real green salad for the first time. Justin Timberlake comes in all the time for the omelets, which are perfect but really not much more than a proper omelet should be, tender and pale, slightly runny on the inside and rolled around Boursin cheese. Tasty, it is true, but also more or less the French equivalent of Velveeta.
On my first visit to the restaurant, the only two things on the lunch menu were the Nicoise tuna sandwich called pan bagnat, and a baguette with ham, butter and a little honey. The butter was the famed La Baratte from Normandy. The ham was a beautifully cured jambon de Paris. The baguette was baked by an astonishingly gifted amateur who stops in with loaves a couple of times a day. I'm not sure I've ever had a better ham sandwich.
The terrine is a simple jambon persillé, a traditional dish of boiled ham and herbs bound with a bit of jellied ham stock, but the flavor is animal, tremblingly alive. A green bean salad is dressed with cream, toasted almonds and a shower of freshly grated horseradish, the kind of thing you might think you could whip up for a late supper but probably couldn't. The crisp-skinned chicken leg is strewn with bread crumbs crisped in brown butter and with a handful of frisée salad, a dish that should be in Escoffier even if it isn't.
Are the steak frites basically steak frites? Sure. The fries are cooked in rendered beef fat but never get quite crisp; the grilled entrecote is standard, a little tough in the French fashion, although the peppery sauce is nice. The steak tartare is more emulsified, more mayonnaise-intensive than you may be used to. The Napoleon filled with pastry cream and the flourless chocolate cake with whipped cream are exactly what you'd get in a bistro.
But it is hard to think of a better late supper than escargot and a deep-red glass of Bourgeuil, or a better lunch than the béchamel-rich croque-monsieur. Lefebvre may not have figured out what we want in a bistro yet, but he has figured out what he wants in a bistro, and in the end, that may be more important.
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Ludovic Lefebvre gets down to basics.
718 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 468-8916, petittrois.com
Hors d'oeuvres, $11-$16; larger plates, $18-$33; desserts, $10. (An 18% tip is automatically added to the bill.)
Open noon to 11 p.m. daily. Credit cards only; no cash accepted. Full bar. Valet parking. No reservations accepted.