Get ready for a nice surprise
AT Fraiche in Culver City, duck rillettes arrive formed into fat cubes lined up in a row next to cheerful dots of mustard aioli, each one smaller than the one before. The rillettes -- duck cooked in its own fat until its becomes a rich, delectable pate of duck meat and fat -- is irresistible spread on toast. It’s something you might see on the menu in southwest France, but I’m willing to bet it’s the first time it’s ever been seen in downtown Culver City. Tete de veau persillade -- luscious chunks of veal inset in brilliant jellied parsley -- is an update on Burgundy’s picnic classic, jambon persille. And it’s not just about France. When your fork cuts into the ravioli filled with house-made ricotta and a puree of the last of the season’s English peas and mint, the texture feels right. The taste is fresh and utterly beguiling.
The brainchild of chef Jason Travi, his wife Miho, who is the pastry chef, and Thierry Perez, the manager and wine director, Fraiche has captured the way Los Angeles wants to eat right now. No fancy linens or snooty maitre d’s. No stiff service or dishes that have to be eaten with special implements according to instructions from on high. And though the food doesn’t deviate much from the ever-popular California-Mediterranean, Travi gives L.A.'s favorite cuisine a fresh, personal spin at this high-spirited California brasserie.
Outside, at the sidewalk edge of the restaurant’s broad, inviting terrace just across from the historic Culver Hotel, strollers pause to check out the menu posted in a frame. It all fits on one page: charcuterie, fruits de mer, eight or so appetizers and about the same number of main courses. A wildly diverse crowd is ensconced at the sidewalk tables, slurping oysters or nibbling on appetizers, and looking very much as if they’ve been surveying the scene from their chosen perch for years, if not decades. But in fact, Fraiche is only a few months old.
Venture into the bar through the tall French doors that run along the entire front of the restaurant, and you’ll see mysterious elixirs and infusions in antique bottles on the shelves behind, a clue that something different is going on -- and an invitation to sit and watch the deft mixology of Austrian Albert Trummer. Trummer, who has been known to employ Bunsen burners and pyrotechnics in some of his more fanciful concoctions, can also, for classicists who might wrinkle their noses at the delicious blood orange martini, turn out a perfect, traditional James Bondian shaken version.
FOR his menu at Fraiche, Travi has pulled together his experience at Spago (where he worked under Lee Hefter) and La Terza (where he was chef de cuisine under Gino Angelini), and built a menu that’s sophisticated yet easygoing.
Here, you don’t have to worry that you’re going to spend more than you should. You can come for a $14 plate of pasta or a $22 steak frites and a glass of wine before a movie. Another time, reserve a big table with the intention of eating your way through the menu. The beautiful thing is that you can still come away with a bill that’s far less than at most of the other happening places in town. Late at night, you can linger on the terrace over dessert and a glass of Champagne without breaking the bank. (The bar menu is served until midnight.)
Travi’s first courses grab your interest right away. Especially the salads. He has a lovely salad of ruby or pink beets, quartered and presented on a puddle of loose, house-made ricotta strewn with baby mache, finely diced red onion and hazelnuts for crunch. Their flavors against the sweet, earthy beets make this salad really sing. Frisee and warm sauteed wild mushrooms tossed in a bright citrus vinaigrette make another winning salad. I really like his farro salad too. He takes the boiled grain and mixes it with the rich sweet note of roasted red peppers and English peas with a little Tuscan pecorino grated over the top.
You don’t often expect to see boudin noir as a first course, but here it appears as a gutsy salad with slices of the spiced blood sausage snuggled into bed with marinated grilled lentils.
A delightful soup
ONE of the best things on the menu is a soup that appears under the pasta category. It’s the traditional Italian passatelli in brodo (that would be a rich chicken broth studded with pulled chicken and passatelli, pasta made from bread crumbs passed through the holes of a spaetzle maker). The little squiggles are feather light and soak up all that good broth. This is a soup your Italian grandma would have made.
I don’t know who would have made the roasted corn soup, though. The taste of the corn is vibrant, but what an odd soup. Pureeing the corn is bad enough, but when I dip in my spoon, it comes up with the warm, whole cherry tomatoes dripping corn soup. It’s a rare lapse of judgment, though.
Travi is no Italian grandmother, but the tattooed chef has the touch. His pastas are usually wonderful. Especially the ravioli.
One night the half-moons might be filled with that house-made ricotta and bitter greens, another with ricotta and a pretty puree of fresh peas. Napped in butter, the pasta packets are supple and absolutely delicious. His can put many an Italian chef’s to shame.
Tortelli are terrific too, filled with braised rabbit and sauced with melted butter and baby artichokes. Rigatoni with a savory lamb Bolognese is good too. On a recent visit, though, someone different must have been making the pasta, because the normally subtle agnolotti were thick and clumsy, overstuffed with a dry pork osso buco and Swiss chard filling.
The kitchen isn’t a perfect system yet, but the restaurant is, after all, very new. And like most new places, it struggles for consistency. To pull off a place like this, everyone has had to work hard for months and you can see the tiredness in the faces of the kitchen staff behind the long counter of the open kitchen.
Although Fraiche is not the quietest restaurant I’ve ever been in, it’s not as ear-splitting loud as has become the standard.
Travi manages to keep the interest up when it comes to the main courses, and he has put together eight or so entrees that are more intriguing than most. I love his branzino en papillote, the Mediterranean striped sea bass wrapped in a parchment paper packet with fresh corn, Peruvian purple potatoes, leeks and a handful of clams. The vegetables may change with the season, but whatever bouquet of ingredients he’s got in there with the fish, everything steams together, mingling flavors.
And when it comes to the table, a server deftly peels back the parchment, rolling it around a fork, to reveal this medley of seafood in all its fragrant glory.
Roasted half chicken is juicy and flavorful but, to my mind, beat out by the lamb spezzatino, a delicate stew of tender lamb chunks served with adorable ricotta gnocchi and a zesty gremolata. And for anybody looking for a good steak in the $22 price range, the kitchen does a good job with flat-iron steak served with a compound butter and hand-cut fries. I’d take this one over many a $38 or $40 number I’ve had at the latest crop of hip steakhouses.
Engaging wine list
THE wine list doesn’t gouge either. Manager Perez, who was briefly sommelier at Providence and elsewhere, has put together an engaging wine list with prices that are very fair. It’s strongest on entries from France (natch, Perez is French), Italy and Spain and offers plenty of bottles from very good producers for less than $40.
To have some choice in that price range is a real luxury. The list is weakest on California wines, short on the unusual and cutting-edge labels that would be a real asset to the restaurant.
Pastry chef Miho Travi, who has worked at Spago and Sona, is turning out some bravura desserts. Her latest is a Santa Rosa plum brown butter tart. Served warm from the oven, it’s a diminutive cake with a dense, yet fluffy texture embedded with the sweet-sour taste of California’s favorite plum.
Earlier on, she was doing more or less the same thing with rhubarb too. Her torta della nonna is a thing of beauty, a fat little tart with a creamy custard filling covered entirely with lightly toasted pine nuts.
But if you can have just one sweet, go for her Paris-Brest, a ring-shaped pastry filled with a seductive almond cream and crowned with a halo of spun sugar.
Relaxing over dinner at Fraiche, enjoying the summer night and the deep contentment that seems to hover over the bar and the terrace outside, I keep wishing I had something like this in my neighborhood. I’m sure everybody else is thinking the same thing. Except the lucky ones who happen to live in Culver City.
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Rating: ** 1/2
Location: 9411 Culver Blvd., Culver City; (310) 839-6800; fraicherestaurantla.com.
Ambience: Lively newcomer with a broad outdoor terrace, an eclectic urban crowd and fresh, appealing Cal-Mediterranean cooking from ex-La Terza chef de cuisine Jason Travi.
Service: Strikes just the right tone, friendly and correct, with servers adept enough to open and unfurl the parchment paper around a fish using only a fork.
Price: Salumi and charcuterie, $6 to $25; appetizers, $6 to $98 (for the grand fruits de mer platter); pasta, $11 to $15; main courses, $21 to $26; cheese plates, $12 to $15; desserts, $8 to $10.
Best dishes: Charcuterie, passatelli in brodo, baby beets with mache and ricotta, farro salad with English peas, ravioli filled with sheep’s milk ricotta and bitter greens or English peas, tortelli stuffed with braised rabbit, branzino en papillote, Kurobuta pork chop, flat-iron steak with hand-cut fries, lamb spezzatino, strawberry and rose dessert, Paris-Brest with almond cream.
Wine list: Europe-centric wine list with lots of moderately priced wines from good producers for less than $40 from Spain, Italy and France. Corkage fee, $15.
Best table: One on the sidewalk terrace or just inside the tall French doors.
Details: Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, for dinner 6 to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Bar and lounge open until 2 a.m.; bar menu served until midnight. Full bar. Two hours free parking in the city lot around the corner, $1 an hour thereafter.
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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