As a restaurant critic, the second most frequent question I'm asked (after "How do you stay so thin?," to which I blithely reply, "I don't swallow") is what is your favorite place to eat when you are not reviewing? I usually hem-and-haw and throw off the usual Spago, The Grill and Valentino,......while not offering the real answer in a desire to keep it under-the-radar. But this week I had to shepherd six savvy European food-lovers to a dinner and they had asked me to take them to "a typical Los Angeles restaurant." So I broke my rule and took them to my favorite restaurant in the city....the place where I do eat several times a week when not working. LE PETIT FOUR (8654 Sunset Blvd, Sunset Plaza Drive a block west of La Cienega (310-652-3863), the place on the south side with the bright yellow awning and driveway leading to the huge parking lot behind the plaza. You park below and enter their back door with the bright sign and go up the stairs to the restaurant. At the lower vestibule next to the restrooms you will see a wall of pictures which owner Alex Margenthaler put up after the death last year of his long-time partner, Robert Bigonnet, someone we all mourn and miss every day. Perhaps a hundred pictures, of stars and regular customers with both of the guys...along with a shot of the eatery when it opened in 1981.
As I told my European friends, I have ben coming here for almost 25 years......often three or four times a week, lunch and dinner. Always here after a screening at the DGA theatre down the avenue. Twenty years ago a few friends and I began a tradition which has persevered to this day, the Saturday Boy's Lunch, a table in the center of the restaurant which is open to all our friends and acquaintances, male and female, who are in town and available. (It's all dutch, everyone throws a few bills into the pot to pay the bill and generously tip our waitress.) In recent months it has narrowed its focus to a handful of regulars including my best friend Jerry and a new couple, the recently-engaged Lorna Berle (Milton's widow) and Peter Kingston. This Thursday night my Europeans and I arrived about six p.m, and I had reserved the only round table in the place, a large one alongside the entrance. Already the place was humming with activity; it was a lovely night and the outdoor patio was rapidly filling up. My companions commented favorably on the extensive wine list with many boutique selections at very fair prices. (I drank a tall 16 oz. Sangria - $11 - made with a French red.) Sonata had a Pear Martini ($14) and praised it. I waved a greeting to Leba Sedaka, Neil's spouse, here with her grandchildren, and commiserated with Peggy Graunan, at the next table, on the recent loss of her husband, director Walter. Yes, it's like a European-American clubhouse, and you never know whom you will see here. This night we speculated on a seven-foot basketball star on the terrace.
Lorna Berle and Peter Kingston are the newest additions to the Saturday Boy's Lunch table.
Le Petit Four is a composite of many things. The food, under Chef de Cuisine Phillip Bohlander and Sous Chef Carlos Adan Velasquez, is so good that you wonder how they can turn out this quality with a huge menu of over 120 selections plus specials. The dinner specials were listed on a separate sheet, almost a hundred offerings, including something new which I had not noticed before. Gluten-free penne is now available as a substitute for all pasta dishes at an additional cost of $2.50. I had been avoiding regular pasta of late and missing it....now I could indulge myself with their delicious linguini and rigatoni dishes. At lunch I just had Linguini with Clams ($17, $2.50 more with the gluten-free penne), spicy with garlic, shallots, herbs, crushed chilis, with a white wine and butter sauce. Heavenly. A dinner companion noted that they had Dover Sole Sauteed Meuniere ($36) and commented on the price, at least $10 less than other places with authentic sole. The butter-and-lemon juice-sauced fish was served with steamed potatoes and sautéed spinach. I recommended the Lamb Shank ($30) to my friend, served with mushroom risotto. It was a large meaty bone with a rich sauce. The Rack of Lamb ($29) was roasted perfectly and served with a couscous salad and fresh mint.
This is a cafe/restaurant/brasserie for the nuclear age, perfect for this moment in history, this time in my ilfe. With its indoor-outdoor dining, it is always full of Europeans who seem to miss the opportunity to smoke. And until recently it was a place you got to bring your dog and keep him/her under the outdoor table without harassment. It was on New Year's Eve of 1999 that Alex and Robert took it over from previous owners who had let it run down.....and in the following decades they refurbished it until it sparkled and hummed like a well-oiled machine. (Robert had owned the legendary French bistro, Le Chardonnay, of which this is a more casual version) Exec Chef Phillipe is a veteran of Le Dome next door, and people laugh when I say that the Smoked Salmon here is simply the best in the world...until they taste the silky smooth, meltingly luxurious smoked fish ($18) served with its capers, onions, a large square of cream cheese and toast bits. If you happen to be extra hungry, you can order a Smoked Salmon Pizza ($18), thin-crust, made with creamed cheese-like crème fraiche. I usually ask my long-time waitress, Punnee Maneeves, to add a little extra salmon. Other pizza choices include a Neapolitan ($16) and a BBQ Chicken Pizza ($16) with smoked mozzarella and sautéed red onions. Even a Greek Pizza (($17) with feta cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers and red onions. Thin-crust if you ask.
I also happen to think they serve the best French fries anywhere; something to do with double or triple frying, but they stay crunchy longer than any others. Are you listening, McDonald's? I don't know why they are so good, perhaps the supplier, a coating, perhaps the hot oil they use, just eat them while they are hot. The soup of the day is usually a Chicken and Cabbage broth ($8), but let me recommend the Lobster Bisque ($10, a creamy rich lobster soup with shrimp garnish, the best I have had anywhere.) I often begin my meal with their Creamy Sweet Corn Soup ($8), creamed corn in chicken broth. If you are a connoisseur of Onion Soup ($10), as I think I am, there is no better than Phillip's, made with a rich beef broth and a tangy cheese topping (gruyere?), with croutons embedded below. Did I mention their Crab Cakes ($14), two amazing orbs of crab meat with just the right amount of filler, sautéed to crisp and served with mixed baby greens, tomatoes and a seemingly homemade tartar sauce. Tuna Tartar? I happen to think the best tuna tartar is served at Livello at L'Ermitage Hotel, but the version served here is also superb: Ahi Tuna Tartar ($18) served with fennel, olive puree, tomatoes, caper berries, cucumbers and caraway toast. The Fresh Salmon Tartar ($16) is completely different, the salmon mixed with tartar sauce. I happen to think that any day without some tuna salad in it is an incomplete day, so know that the salad here is homemade and wonderful, especially with a side of mashed potatoes and their tartar sauce. You can get a Tuna Salad Sandwich on toasted multigrain bread until 6 pm, served either with a salad or fries. (I prefer it to the Grilled Ahi Tuna Sandwich ($23)). They also offer 'til 6 pm a Grilled Ham and Swiss Cheese Sandwich ($16) and a Grilled Chicken Sandwich ($16).
One of my lunch regulars always orders the same thing: Hanger Steak ($25), a cut called 'onglet' by French butchers who, because there is only one on a cow, would take it home for their family. It is a long, tougher but beefy strip which is sautéed with shallots and red wine. When I am in the mood for a good steak, I will come here and order the Prime Sirloin ($26), grilled to medium rare and topped with lemon-herb butter which soaks into the meat. It's served with those exquisite fries, as is the Steak Au Poivre ($26), the prime sirloin sautéed with brandy green peppercorn sauce. Chops? My friend John had a 10 oz. Veal Chop last night ($28), the luscious hunk of meat had been lightly marinated and then sauteed, served with caponata (eggplant) veggie stew with a port wine sauce. In a New York white-table cloth restaurant, it would be double the price. Alongside me on the other side, my friend Gary ordered something which I also love, the Calves Liver ($20), only he had it well done, a no-no for me. (I like it pink inside, so kill me.) It was served Venezia-style, with onions. It had been sautéed with white wine, butter, shallots and parsley. They served it with buttery mashed potatoes, the real kind made with real potatoes, not a mix. (You can tell the difference.) A Pork Chop at $24 was also a bargain, served with apple puree and mashed potatoes, the traditional way. Did I mention that I ordered a Boudin Noir ($20) for the table, only no one but me would eat it. These blood sausages are made in San Francisco by the great butcher Bruce Aidell and are simply wonderful, served with that apple puree and mashed. So superior to British Bangers. I usually order them with scrambled eggs. Again, eggs until 6 pm are a wonder. Phillip is the rare chef who knows how to make a real French Omelette ($16), whether it be ham and Swiss cheese, julienne vegetables and Swiss cheese, mushroom and Swiss and herb omelette (my favorite!) or even a smoked salmon omelette.
Remember, this may be the biggest and best menu in the city. The huge salad selection should be mentioned. A Salade Nicoise ($17) made the real way, with canned French tuna in olive oil, tomatoes, egg, new potatoes, black olives and green beans. Raves about their Chinese Chicken Salad ($17) abound. The wonderful pastas. Fresh fish. My ex raves about the Lake Superior Whitefish ($21) sautéed in lemon butter and white wine sauce. Burgers. Even Burgundy Snails in a puff pastry ($11). I find the Broccoli-Leek Quiche ($16) a bit too dry for me, but once I drizzle a little olive oil on it from the crusette which is on every table, it is fine. The Calamari Fritte ($14) makes up for it, a big plate of crispy fried squid served with spicy cocktail sauce and tartar. My favorite pasta is a toss-up, but the Fettuccini Dustin ($18, yes, named for him) is exemplary, creamy Alfredo with chicken and mushrooms added. The Black Maine Mussels ($19) are rather incredible, especially when you are sopping up the savory white wine-and shallots cream sauce with the crusty French bread. This is one of the few places in the city where I will eat Steak Tartare ($25), ground to order, served with capers, shallots, raw egg yolk and parsley. (They add some Thousand Island dressing, but I ask that it not go in.) Just add lots of ground pepper as I do. Desserts? Made by a wonderful elderly woman who once supplied Le Dome. For some crazy reason, the Health Department doesn't allow the rolling dessert carts any longer but they bring you a bountiful tray which will whet your sweet tooth.
The most popular drink at our table is always the non-alcoholic "Arnold Palmer" ($4, iced tea and lemonade although I am trying to make progress in my "Weston Cocktail".... tomato juice and lemonade.) They have a full bar and make great martinis and margaritas. Alex knows his wines and by-the-glass choices are reasonable and interesting. Corkage is $19, very reasonable. They don't officially take reservations but I have found the girl on the phone to be very accommodating. An 18% service charge is added for parties of five or more, something which is becoming more prevalent.
As I write this, I sense that I have not even conveyed to you the depth of my affection for this restaurant. So I guess you'll just have to show up some Saturday at our 'boy's lunch' and watch me enjoy it!
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