French restaurants have made a sweeping return in the United States over the last five years, and by that I mean explicitly French restaurants. France as the synonym for culinary excellence began fading in the 1990s, as chefs of many heritages slowly began shaping a more holistic identity of American dining culture. French influence — its techniques, its kitchen brigade system, its most decorated figures — never left. But menus anchored by mother sauces and soufflés became, in a word, passé.
History repeats. By my reckoning, two very different but decisively Gallic smash hits — Ludo Lefebvre’s tiny, brilliant bar Petit Trois in Los Angeles, followed by Manhattan’s high-glitz Le Coucou — opened in the mid-2010s and rekindled a national appetite for French cuisine. Charming bistros, bustling brasseries and grand Continental palaces began reappearing across the country.
They may be less fusty than their precursors, and they’ll tinker with strict traditions, but their lexicon has easily traceable roots: Seafood quenelle, sauce Meunière, steak tartare (lots of steak tartare) and billowing soufflés are back to claim a place in the spotlight.
Dave Beran’s Pasjoli opened in Santa Monica in September. He puts forth a shrewd hybrid: the costly temple of high gastronomy presented as design-forward bistro. The dishes I ticked off above are present; so are a glittering caviar service, a trembling onion tart that ably steps in for soupe a l’oignon and, best of all, a tableside show starring dismembered poultry.
Pasjoli is both a period on the decade’s Gallic resurgence and a full-circle return for its chef-owner.
In 2017 Beran opened Dialogue, the 18-seat modernist feat hidden behind a locked door on the second floor of a food court on the Third Street Promenade. It ranks as one of the country’s most thrillingly cerebral tasting-menu experiences, but it wasn’t the place Beran initially planned to create when he moved to Los Angeles from Chicago in 2016. He’d intended to open a dual restaurant downtown: casual French on one side, a tasting-menu adjunct on the other to be called Jolie. The space fell through, Dialogue emerged and nearly three years later his reconceived idea — à la carte but not exactly casual — opened with its tongue-in-cheek name (“not pretty” in French).
In reality, Pasjoli leaps right over notions of prettiness to abject beauty. The two-room space among Main Street’s retail density shines with a caramel glow that pulls you in. Decor details are sumptuous. Hand-painted silk wallpaper depicts flowers in an eruptive springtime fantasy. Patterns that suggest fleur-de-lys run through the mossy-green velvet banquettes. Marble and white tile gleam. Woods shine. Scruffy red brick pulls its usual trick of calming the brain. The “Amélie” soundtrack trilling overhead feels just right. Swelling floral arrangements break up the view of the otherwise open kitchen.
But your eyes won’t be on the chefs at the stoves. They’ll be following Beran as he performs one of the goriest and grandest French creations: pressed duck.
It happens 10 to 14 times a night; it’s the sensation of the moment in L.A. haute dining. The duck costs $165 for two, including side dishes, and it must be requested ahead of time. If you’re up for the spree, is the spectacle worth planning a reservation around? Yes.
“The whole premise behind this course is that the bird has to be very fresh,” Beran says each time he begins carving a whole duck barely roasted to a crimson rare. As he stands over a teak trolley furnished with a burner, knife and then poultry shears in hand, he talks Auguste Escoffier.
Beran was previously executive chef at Chicago’s Next, the Grant Achatz restaurant that changes menus and concepts entirely four times a year. Its first menu, back in 2011, was called “Paris: 1906,” channeling Escoffier and Cesar Ritz the year they opened the eponymous hotel. The Next team prepared an extravagant version of caneton Rouennais à la presse from “Le Guide Culinaire.” The notion of duck served with a sauce made of the beast’s expressed innards burrowed into Beran’s consciousness. He included a dialed-back take on his inaugural seasonal menu at Dialogue. The one at Pasjoli is the whole shebang.
Beran places the breast meat on a platter covered with rosemary; a staffer is waiting to rush it back to the kitchen. He fits pieces of the bird into a canister like a 3D puzzle. Another crew member carries over the silver duck press, a bell-shaped implement outfitted with crank and wheel. Canister in place, Beran spins the wheel on the press to extract every possible essence of organs and blood; a waxy, rosy-mauve-gray liquid streams out of a spout and into a porcelain tea cup. Beran stirs the cup’s contents into duck jus warming in a skillet with red Bordeaux and Cognac.
The duck breast returns, sliced and fanned on plates and lovely. The sauce, though. It’s the practical reason behind the pageantry: It must be cooked over low heat, lest it coagulate, and served immediately. The flavors are electric and deep and animal-wild. I drink it like a potion. A salad of duck confit with leaves dressed in drippings and sherry vinegar arrives, as does wondrous potato gratin with Gruyère and a blanket of crisp breadcrumbs and fresh thyme.
Beran is a precisionist’s precisionist. He thrives on pulling off these kind of coups, though I’m betting he’ll eventually grow weary of the all-consuming floor show.
So what else wows at Pasjoli? Erudite cocktails, with combinations such as Armagnac and bitters or white rum, vermouth and pureed cantaloupe. Foie de poulet à la Strasbourgeoise is a mischievous indulgence: chicken liver, plumped up with butter and sotted on Madeira, masquerading as foie gras au torchon. Beran embeds it in the center of brioche, which is sliced and covered in black truffle shavings and served with truffled shallot marmalade.
Two desserts have me floating out the door. First is the immaculate chocolate soufflé, served with custardy vanilla bean ice cream. Even better is a cloud bank of vanilla bean rice pudding, inspired by the famous and relentlessly caloric version at Paris’ L’Ami Jean, hovering over candied pecans and offset with pineapple caramelized for six hours.
A caviar service involves measuring the roe in ounces, and there are brown butter potato chips and various potent dips … but this is all starting to sound rich and opulent to the point of ridiculousness. Maybe alongside the chicken liver, then, start with a salad of endive, black walnuts, grapefruit and Comté; it pleasantly slakes the palate with its shades of bitterness. A duet of tuna and tomato brings a welcome acidic twang.
Highs are so dizzyingly high that dishes that might impress in another context come off as average in comparison. None of the seafood entrees — trout amandine, turbot meunière, lobster vol-au-vent — particularly imbed in my memory. A golden omelet with Gruyère and truffles flaunts meticulous technique but is almost torpid in its extravagance.
Before opening Pasjoli, Beran told my colleague Andrea Chang in an interview that “the French cuisine I really fell in love with deals primarily with the Parisian markets.” But produce-driven levity, as it turns out, is not the restaurant’s métier early on. Elaborate duck and miraculous faux foie and dairy-suffused excesses are its strengths.
These are worthy pleasures for Beran and chef de cuisine Matthew Kim (who was sous chef at Dialogue) to have mastered. Beran is one of our brainiest chefs; he’s an appropriate medium through which to revive Escoffier. But when he does wind his way back to the market, when he really plunges his hands and mind into the California dirt? I think that’s when we’ll see French-inspired cooking that melds the past with the future and leads us into the 2020s.
Location: 2732 Main St., Santa Monica, (424) 330-0020, pasjoli.com,
Prices: Most appetizers $9-$36, most entrees $38-$54, desserts $16-$20.
Details: Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Street parking. Wheelchair accessible.
Recommended dishes: Caramelized onion tart, chicken liver in brioche, tuna and tomato, pressed duck, rice pudding.