Restaurant review: Alain Giraud’s Anisette in Santa Monica

Times Restaurant Critic

When I took a Francophile friend to dinner in Santa Monica last week, she stood on the tiny octagonal tiles spelling out the name Anisette and twirled on her glittery ballet flats, looking up at the high ceilings, taking in the age-spotted mirrors and red leatherette banquettes. “Oh, it’s beautiful,” she sighs. “It reminds me of Paris.” Which is precisely what this new brasserie from L.A.'s top French toque is supposed to do.

It’s also very reminiscent of Balthazar in New York, from which the design borrows its look, maybe on a more stringent budget. My friend’s eyes linger on the long zinc bar (imported from France) and the rows of wine bottles on shelves that go all the way to the former bank building’s high ceiling. The higher you go, the bigger the bottles. “Magnums of my favorite Champagne,” she whispers before dancing off to inspect the raw shellfish display at the end of the bar where bright red lobsters, king crab legs and silvery gray oysters on the half shell are laid out on ice.

Just like Paris brasseries, Anisette, which is named for the typical French anise-flavored liqueur, has its own écailler, or shellfish expert. It also has a French chef at the helm. At Bastide and, before that, Citrus during its heyday, Alain Giraud drew a passionate following for his exquisite and sophisticated French cooking.

But after a couple of years’ hiatus, instead of opening an ambitious high-end restaurant, Giraud has jumped back in the scene with this brasserie in partnership with Mike Garrett and Tommy Stoilkovich, owners of the trendy night spot Falcon. Though the experience is faithful to the French model, the dishes don’t translate as well as they could.

The atmosphere at this beach-adjacent brasserie feels exactly right. Breakfast, lunch or dinner, people are sitting at the bar eating, drinking, talking, reading a book or a newspaper. Couples are tucked into tiny two-tops, catching up over a bowl of hearty onion soup or a plate of charcuterie. Body language is relaxed.

Maybe it’s the way the tables and banquettes are fit between the fat pillars of the former bank building, or the way you can never take in the entire room at one glance. Up above, on the mezzanine, you might glimpse the figure of Giraud overseeing the action in the kitchen. Outside, a parade of pedestrians walking by.

Hors d’oeuvres on high

LUSTING after that pristine seafood, Sylvie, two other friends and I sit down and immediately order one of the three chilled seafood platters, the midpriced one, for two to four people, $80 tonight at market price. Turning to the wine list, we choose a bottle of Apremont, a crisp, minerally white from the Savoie region of France that at $36 is a relative bargain on the wine list. When we send a taste over to a couple of friends at another table, they order a bottle too.

The two-tier extravaganza of seafood includes meaty shrimp in the shell to dip in pretty pink Marie Rose sauce (basically a French Thousand Island). Bite by bite, we explore tender steamed mussels and raw clams from Carlsbad down the coast, and a dozen perfectly chilled oysters on the half shell in several varieties.

I love the tiny Kumamotos from the Northwest -- a sip of wine, an oyster slipped down the throat. King crab legs are fresh, which makes all the difference. Our platter also comes with half a lobster and it’s terrific with a little of the fiery rouille or the aioli that comes with the seafood.

I’ve also enjoyed one of the menu’s plats pour deux -- plates for two. Rack of lamb is served with all due ceremony. First the waiter shows off the rack in the pan, then brings back the chops accompanied by the silky, slightly concentrated jus and slices of sumptuous gratin dauphinoise straight from the pan. Sides are limited but well-prepared, especially the day’s seasonal vegetables and the sautéed spinach.

Two women next to us fervently talk politics while they demolish the tower of hors d’oeuvres for two and a bottle of wine. It’s a perfect light supper, three tiers of cheese (and very good ones), charcuterie and marinated vegetables, with bread, of course, mustard and butter. I wish the pâté de campagne had more flavor, though.

Beef tartare is a good bet here too, nicely seasoned and served with rustic toast. I liked the vegetables à la grecque cooked and marinated in olive oil, herbs and coriander, but they’re missing from the latest menu.

The lineup of dishes doesn’t change much other than to propose plats du jour, always the same. Thursday brings a rather ordinary blanquette de veau, or veal stew, Saturday a roast leg of lamb with flageolet beans. Wednesday rings in that old standby duck à l’orange. This one is lighter than the classic, garnished with Mandarin orange slices, but not compelling enough to draw me back for another Wednesday. From the regular main courses, duck confit and entrecôte are fine, not memorable. Fries, served in a silver vase, are excellent.

Great expectations

SOME dishes, though, are wildly off kilter. Croque-monsieur is encased in so much béchamel, it’s like cutting through a gluey blanket. Despite a gutsy rouille, Provençal fish soup is a disappointment, without concentrated flavor, as if it had been made by someone who’d never tasted the dish.

Breakfast is misconceived. How is it possible that you can’t even get a real omelet? It’s more a frittata, which makes me wonder whether there’s anybody on the morning shift who can be trusted to make a proper one. Go with the viennoiseries, or morning pastries, especially the buttery croissant.

To be honest, I expected more from Monsieur Giraud, who we know can cook like a dream. Chefs all over Paris have reinvigorated the form with exciting contemporary bistros and brasseries. But this effort doesn’t go far enough. And it’s something of a mystery. Giraud is there day and night, so commitment isn’t the issue.

He just may not have a feel for this kind of cooking, which, after all, is not what he was trained to do. In fact, it is exactly what his generation of chefs was trying to escape, the deadening routine of cooking a standard repertoire night after night. Running a restaurant that’s open from early morning breakfast until late at night has had its challenges. And getting the kitchen team up to speed has been one too. One chef de cuisine has already left to take another job. The new one, Josh Smith, arrived only a couple of weeks ago.

Even the wine list seems a bit limited in its ambitions. It isn’t very extensive, but I can always find a delicious bottle on the list for not too much money -- like that Apremont from the Savoie, a Savennières from the Loire or a woolly Madiran from southwest France. For those kinds of bottles, check the category “Vins de Terroir.” Wine director Mervyn Hecht looks to less-known regions for interesting French bottles and has put together some bottles from California that play well with food.

I saw Michel Richard, Giraud’s old boss at Citrus, now the toast of Washington, D.C., leaving one night and wondered what the brilliant chef thought about the desserts. They’re pretty basic. Giraud’s signature lavender ice cream decorated with meringue kisses is there, of course, and also a rich crème caramel and profiteroles with dark chocolate sauce poured from a silver pot. But they’re hardly inspired.

Though I love the bustle and the fun of Anisette, I wish the menu felt more personal. Despite the opening glitches, I’m confident that Giraud will fix what’s wrong. And there’s nothing like it in town. I’ll definitely be back for the splendid seafood platters, a comforting bowl of onion soup when the weather turns cold, and maybe some moules (mussels) or steak frites. Not to mention coffee and a croissant after the farmers market.

Anisette Rating: **Location: The Historic Clock Tower Building, 225 Santa Monica Blvd. (at Second Street), Santa Monica; (310) 395-3200; A bit of Paris dropped into a tall building two blocks from the beach with a long zinc bar, towering seafood platters, red banquettes and the bustle and energy of a brasserie, California-style, from Alain Giraud (Citrus, Bastide).Service: Great front of the house, intelligent waiters, though the food can sometimes be slow coming from the kitchen.Price: Dinner appetizers, $13 to $19.50; main courses, $18 to $26; plats du jour, $22 to $30; sides, $6; desserts, $8. Seafood platters, $55 to $95; shellfish, $7 to $28.Best dishes: Seafood platter, hors d’oeuvres platter for two, steak tartare, onion soup, vegetables à la grecque, moules frites, entrecôte frites, rack of lamb for two, crème caramel, vacherin glacé.Wine list: Small, well-chosen list of French and California wines. Corkage fee, $25.Best table: A seat at the zinc bar or a corner table in front.Details: Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday (with a break from 3 to 5 p.m.); from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Full bar. Valet parking, $5.To see a photo gallery, go to 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.