Everyone has their favorite spots to eat where they fit in perfectly, without effort, and consistently enjoy the food. Some like the crowded revelry of a hipster gastropub and some like the tux and tie elegance of an old school meat and potatoes joint but for me, I will take a quirky French bistro over the rest.
But what makes a good French bistro? For me, the essential ingredients are as follows: small and intimate atmosphere; a homey-feeling that is also contemporary with eclectic décor choices like ornate mirrors, gilt or other rustic or shabby chic touches that emphasize the thrown together but with excellent taste; starters that include rillettes, terrines, mousses and other fat and butter-laden indulgent dishes that go well with good wine and sparkling Champagne; classic yet creative dishes that a French mere would serve at home yet gussied up with the touch of a clever chef; top notch bread; and exquisite pastry desserts.
In the last week I have had the opportunity to test this theory as I ate at two French bistros of very different color.
Bouchon Bistro in Beverly Hills, which shares the courtyard with the classy Montage hotel, has been on my “to try” list for over a year. I had grand fantasies about the place being that it is the baby of Thomas Keller, a chef whose roasted chicken and cucumber vichyssoise have both been served to me by various people in my life to much applause. Plus he owns French Laundry in Napa Valley which all of my foodie girlfriends consistently have mouth orgasms over. So I figured it would titillate me as well.
On all accounts, the place was a class act. Large and boisterous with high ceilings and a curiously eclectic décor, we were met upon arrival with a packed dining room filled with everyone from young couples on dates to well-heeled families of the social climb to celebrities like Tyra Banks and Lionel Richie. The service slowed down upon seeing our jovial party of six, not attempting to merely flip the table, which was a nice touch and the menu was filled with French basics albeit adorned with the Keller touch.
The food was good. A chicken mousse underneath a swath of fat that melted on the tongue; an ordinary well-cooked salmon atop a Meyer lemon sauced quinoa; and a perfect wafer-thin cake slice built with layers of salted caramel and chocolate that married a tiny spot of espresso in a divine way. But although the entire experience was perfectly fine and tasty, it lacked that certain je ne sais quoi that I have found in other French bistros …
…. Including the one I visited next, just last evening, in West Hollywood. Packed on the Whisky A Go Go block of Sunset in perhaps an unfortunate part of town not prone to deliver a sheer multitude of guests who might appreciate its greatness (like right smack in the middle of Beverly Hills like Bouchon), Gorge Charcuterie and Wine Bar definitely made the list of my greats.
In a small and warm space with diners lining the comfortable and dark perimeter of the room around an old-fashioned style luxe bar in the center, everyone felt like they were at a grand feast together while still feeling privately attended to by a hospitable staff that mixed and mingled casually with the patrons. Even Chef Elia came out to say hello to guests throughout the evening.
But the high note was the food. You could tell every plate was made with care and a nod to innovation that wanted to be creative yet comforting simultaneously. We ordered more than we are used to because we were that tempted by the offerings: a pot of granular yet smooth rabbit rillette to spread on country toast, a board of the house made charcuterie that included the best head cheese I have had to date, a slim and soft baguette topped with pickled diced pig ear, arugula and Meyer lemon crème fraiche.
Our last bite from pastry Chef Uyen (who also doubles as the beautifully gracious hostess) was a flaky and creamy pistachio St. Honore that came studded with a tiny macaron. Macarons being the last item that make my list of a great French bistro!