LOS ANGELES - From the avalanche of attention Thomas Keller has been getting for Bouchon, you'd almost think the arrival of the Beverly Hills restaurant was the second coming. Actually, it is, in a way. For those without a long memory, Keller was executive chef at Checkers Hotel in downtown L.A. in the early '90s, well before the French Laundry, Per Se, and his seven Michelin stars. Now Keller is back in Los Angeles in a big way, this time as a phenomenally successful chef trailing all the high expectations and jealousies that exalted status entails.
Take a deep breath. The Beverly Hills Bouchon is, in the end, just another Bouchon. (Keller has two others, the original locals' hangout in Yountville, Calif., and a second, more palatial spot in Las Vegas.) But, because of Keller's commitment to excellence and unflagging attention to detail, it is, hands down, the best French bistro in Los Angeles. Under chef Rory Herrmann (formerly of Per Se), the kitchen turns out classic bistro dishes tweaked to Keller's modern sensibility. Not only that, the two-month-old bistro has an authentic sense of place and joie d'esprit. It's the real thing in every sense.
Seated at a table at the edge of the room, I take in the scene. The Sharon Stone look-alike and her two girlfriends demolishing golden fries heaped in a metal cone. The young couple greedily sipping Champagne and eating their way through an extravagant two-tier seafood platter. The skinny-legged model in flirty short skirt toting the latest Chanel bag as she trots across the patterned tile floor to the ladies room. The two guys sharing some juicy industry gossip over a charcuterie plate and a carafe of wine at the curved zinc bar imported from France.
Waiters are dressed like those in impressionist paintings: black vest, white shirt, and long white apron knotted at the back, which gives them all a look of tipping slightly forward. There is a lot of service here. Everywhere you look servers and support staff are rushing by. If they're not serving or taking an order, they're deftly changing tablecloths without letting the surface of the table show, covering it with a sheet of butcher's paper, pushing tables together to make a larger one. Managers patrol the room, eyes flicking over each table, checking whether anything needs doing. It's this constant state of motion that makes Bouchon feel like one of the grand old bistros or brasseries in France.
Adam Tihany designed this Bouchon as he did the two previous ones, with a sure eye. Bouchon isn't a faithful copy of a Paris bistro, yet it captures a certain je ne sais quoi with tall foxed mirrors, graceful dark wooden chairs, and yards of shiny brass. Giant glass vases of gladioli disposed about the room add notes of color, mostly fire-engine red, but occasionally cream. And enigmatic frescoes that recall Magritte run across the top of the walls, adding a wry charm to the restaurant. All in all, it's quite the stage setting, albeit with just a touch of Las Vegas build-out.
The menu is a single crisp, folded sheet of brown paper. And like that of many bistros in France, it doesn't change much from week to week. Specials, just a few, are chalked on a blackboard. C'est tout. And yet the dishes are not exact copies of the ones you'd find in France. Everything is interpreted through Keller's lens, delicious, yet more polished than the originals. And executed consistently.
On this menu, you could pretty much close your eyes and point and not come up with a bad or a boring dish. The seafood platter, it's true, is very expensive, but high-quality seafood costs. And this version delivers. I could happily order the grand seafood platter with another person and spend the evening working through the oysters, clams, shrimp, Dungeness crab, and more, polishing off the lobster at the very end.
The rest of the menu is less expensive than you'd expect. You can walk in and have a croque madame at the bar (or a table) for $17.95. Or grab a slice of quiche, maybe the Florentine, a fragile custard interleaved with gorgeous emerald-green spinach leaves. The crust is thin and crisp, and the quiche comes with a perfectly dressed little salad on the side.
Some of the dishes look amazing. Chilled leeks shocked with red wine vinaigrette are showered with bright gold grated egg yolk and beribboned with strips of red pepper. Roast chicken grand-mere arrives with the breast stacked on top of the leg and thigh, with pretty pearl onions, the tiniest fingerling potatoes, button mushrooms, and lardons strewn around in its winter savory-infused juices. It's one of the most comforting dishes I know.
Foie gras terrine is served from a little canning jar, enough for four or even five to make a feast, spreading the duck liver on rafts of toast stacked like logs. Unctuous and sticky, delicious pork rillettes are turned out of a cylindrical mold onto the plate. They're some of the best I've had in this country, precisely seasoned with a perfect dose of salt.
If there's a weak spot, it would be the wine program. Not the selections, which are intelligent and wide-ranging, but the prices. If you have to spend $75 for anything beyond an entry-level wine, something is wrong. Though the wine list from sommelier Alex Weil is filled with bottles I'd like to drink, prices are breathtakingly high.
Either pony up the $25 corkage fee or stick with the excellent wines by the carafe commissioned by Weil in one- or two-barrel quantities. Right now they're pouring a lean, steely Santa Barbara chardonnay from Matt Dees, winemaker at the cult winery Jonata, and a Santa Barbara pinot noir made from organically grown grapes by Central Coast specialist Sashi Moorman, both 2008, at $25 for a half-carafe and $50 for a liter-carafe. It's quite a deal for wines of this quality.
Desserts are simple and satisfying. A wedge of puckery lemon tart on a thin, crisp crust. Profiteroles drizzled with a deep, dark chocolate sauce. Vanilla-orange pot de creme in a lidded porcelain pot, served with sugar-dusted shortbread cookies. Or the signature bouchons, fat cork-shaped chocolate cakes, two bites each, with a ball of vanilla ice cream and a puddle of that velvety chocolate sauce.