Le Petit Café serves wonderful French cuisine with understated European charm

By Richard Foss

Simple pleasures: Pâté, olives, pickles and salad ready the palate for more complex cooking
Le Petit Cafe courtesy photo by David Young-Wolff

I ordered something I didn’t like in a restaurant yesterday, and I did so deliberately. Occasionally I’ll sample dishes made from the few ingredients I’m generally not fond of —like sea cucumber, Icelandic pickled shark and Japanese natto — because perhaps I’ve just never had it prepared well. People all over the world choose to eat these things, so it must be possible to make them delicious … right?

The venue for this particular experiment was Le Petit Café in Santa Monica, a surprisingly authentic French bistro hidden in a neighborhood where office parks transition into residences. Amid the adjacent contemporary architecture, this cozy, old-fashioned café is a charming anachronism, and it looks like it has been around for a lot longer than 23 years.

Your server will give you a menu when you arrive, but will also bring a blackboard that has the more important information about daily offerings. My companion and I both found starters that were irresistible, so we began with a mushroom salad, classic French onion soup and a crabcake with green salad on the side.

Crabcakes can be subtle when the seafood flavor shines, or a vehicle for huge amounts of Old Bay or Louisiana seasoning. As might be expected, this one was on the mild side. Made with
blue crab, just enough binder to keep it together and lightly breaded with herbed crumbs, it was an effective dish that fit the understated European style of the restaurant.

The other cold dish we ordered was a mushroom salad — and by that I do not mean a salad topped with mushrooms, but a tall stack of very fresh mushrooms in a delicate creamy herb dressing. The only other thing on the plate was a few slices of tomato, which were a fruity complement to the slightly musky fungi. Despite the caricature that French preparations involve heavy or rich sauces, there are many that are simple and just focus on the excellence of good ingredients. This was one of them, and it’s the kind of thing you never get tired of.

The rich and hearty side of French cooking was well represented by the bowl of French onion soup, which arrived with a thick crust of gruyere cheese that was toasted crisp over a molten layer. It’s the quality of the broth that makes this dish, and a proper one is boiled down from beef bones so it is a rich and intense foil for the onions and cheese.  A bowl of this looks small, but it’s so rich that you can easily make a light meal of it. That’s what my companion did, though she generously allowed me to nibble a few spoons of it.

Peaceful elegance: Le Petit Café has a cozy, old-fashioned charm
Photo by David Young-Wolff

As I mentioned at the start, I was focused on something else: challenging the kitchen to make me love calves’ liver. There were other things on that chalkboard that I knew I would appreciate — trout amandine for one and roast duck with honey ginger sauce for another — and the salmon salad that was delivered to a neighboring table looked great, but liver is on menus so rarely that I just had to try it.

What arrived was two large slices of meat topped with a mix of parsley, sautéed shallots and a bit of garlic. Most Americans think of parsley as garnish for a plate rather than something you actually eat, but this style of topping (called persillade) is one of the classic seasonings. It adds a bright and fresh herbal tang to balance fatty, umami laden items — a logical companion to a dish like liver that has rich, funky flavors. The scent was promising: both meatiness and the kind of muskiness I associate with blue cheese, morel mushrooms and truffles.

The first bite showed the wisdom of the combination, the strong liver flavor in nice balance with the seasonings. The texture was soft with a very slight graininess, and I enjoyed alternating several small bites of meat with the good fries I had ordered on the side instead of the usual mashed potatoes and vegetables.

In retrospect I should have stayed with the potato and vegetable, because it would have given me two flavors and textures to alternate with the liver. That would have been useful because when I was about done with the first piece I didn’t really want the second one. I had really enjoyed a little of it, but it was so rich that it was like eating butter.

Calves’ liver has a much stronger flavor than the goose, duck, and pork liver that I enjoy in pâtés. A glass of good Burgundy probably would have extended my interest by helping to reboot my palate, and I’ll keep that in mind for next time.

And there will be a next time for ordering calves’ liver, but I’ll have it when dining with someone else who enjoys it so we can trade off bites. (My companion on this trip didn’t qualify, as she seemed slightly appalled that I had ordered it and turned down the sample that I generously offered.)

I’ll be back to Le Petit Café, too.  The starters we shared were superb, and if they can do so well with an ingredient I don’t usually enjoy, I can only imagine how much I’ll enjoy their filet with pepper sauce or roast duck.

Le Petit Café 2842 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica (310) 829 6792 lepetitcafebonjour.com