When people ask me if going veggie is limiting on my eatery selection, my usual response has been "asides from sushi bars and steakhouses, not really." However, subconsciously, I kinda ruled out French restaurants too. Because really, not counting desserts, how many French vegetarian dishes can you name? Asides from ratatouille.
But what turns out to be a shocker is me having a hard time choosing between the promising vegetarian dishes available on the menu, and what two or three things I can order with my finite stomach space.
To help stall for time to make food decisions, I got a glass of Monmousseau sparkling rosé ($9) from the Loire Valley; another expectation blown out of water, as you can tell from its uncharacteristically copper hue, foreshadowing its markedly different flavor profile to most other blush bubblies; rather than smelling berry-forward & slightly toasty, this one is more like a poached pear with warm sweet spices and a bit of vanilla-honey-maple aromas too, something I'd expect more from a Cognac or a bourbon. Flavorwise, it had a touch of sweetness and a slightly heavier body but still enough acidity to make it a nice meal-starting sipper.
For starters, I contemplated getting their mozzarella & leek tarte flambé ~ but scared that the flatbread will be gianormous, I went for the more sensible-sounding burrata with tomato confit and pesto ($10) instead. And I am very pleased with the choice as this turned out to be amazing dish, the tomatoes were wonderfully ripe-tasting and so unbelievably sweet that I even asked co-owner Florence (Bruno's wife) if any sugar or syrup was added, which was an obvious 'No' (they've just been oven-roasted very slowly with a little olive oil and garlic, she replied.) Whereas a caprese salad might have needed some balsamic vinegar for the sweetness, here the caramelized sugars of the roasted tomatoes were enough to complement the garlicky-basily pesto and the creamy-richness of the burrata. Furthermore, the tomatoes were served atop crispy polenta triangles (better view here) which were a nice textural contrast against the everything else on the plate.
As main dish, I also faced a little tough choice -- deliberating between getting a salad, their penne with arugula and garlic confit or their trio of their side dishes. Opting for a little more variety, I went with the third option and got a side course plate of pomme frites, sauteed lentils and oyster mushrooms fricasee ($16).
Of the three, the third left the most remarkable impression, the oyster mushrooms had tons of woodsy flavor and a deceptively meaty texture (in fact, when it first arrived I thought there might've been chicken in the fricasee from appearance alone!) The lentils were a nice little surprise too, being used to lentils stewed to a mush in Indian restaurants, it was nice change of pace to get this firmer, sauteed version -- kind of like Israeli couscous in mouthfeel with an earthy, stewed black bean taste. Finally, the frites, lightly tossed with salt, garlic and parsley -- they were good and actually reminded me of SeriousEats' perfectly thin and crispy fries since they pretty much fulfilled every criteria. But my personal allegiance lies with the thicker, twice-fried frites like the ones at Wurstkuche or the fried-extra-long "well done" version at In 'n Out so these didn't wow me on their own. However, I discovered that I can DIY my own garlic fries by dipping these in the garlic-infused oil that the starter olives were soaking in (comes with bread service) so by the meal's end the plate was pretty much devoid of the taters too.
For dessert, I asked Florence to recommend her favorite from the menu and thus, I got the floating island ($8), a simple but elegant dessert with consisting of a meringue floating atop a sea of creme anglaise. No stranger to this dessert, I was pleased that the meringue was on soft, wet and whippy side like the topping of a lemon meringue pie as opposed to a hard & crumbly like macaron cookie or a pavlova--since this means I don't have to deal fragile pieces flaking and breaking off and getting soggy too fast. The anglaise itself, with little snakey ribbons of caramel, was also delightful -- a perfectly slurpable dessert soup that I kept spooning long after the meringue island is gone. If my adjacent tables were vacant, I might've even sucked out every last drop from the rim of the bowl. But alas, they weren't, so I stayed civil.
As I was sipping my espresso and going over my notes, I was also observing the number of French patrons this place attracted . . . even in the cozy patio that seats about 30 max, there were at least three four-tops where the customers spoke in complete French to Florence and the waitstaff. No stranger to ethnic dining in So Cal, this definitely speaks for the restaurant's authenticity as a brasserie, not to mention building a good enough loyalty amongst clientele that they feel comfortable enough to speak in their native tongue amongst each other and to the almost all-French crew. In the same brasserie vain, the prices here are very reasonable, with starters & wines by the glass around $10, entrees around $20 and desserts at $8.
And of course, the biggest endorsement I could make for a hosted meal is whether I would come back on my own dime, which I would happily do and actually looking forward to . . . even as a vegetarian. I can't wait find a plus-one to share that leek-mozzarella tart with and finally get that meat-eaters perspective, and I for one am already feeling the amour for that tomato confit and floating island.
What Do Others Say?
- Food, She Thought found "the concept is simple and lovely, the execution could be better" but still plans on a return trip
- Exilekiss said it "still needs to settle in and refine itself" but gave props for a few consistently solid dishes
- LA Foodblogging loved their bread and housemade charcuterie, finding it a "perfect place to settle down with a long, leisurely lunch and a glass of wine"
- Tomostyle "could go on and on, as I cannot contain my excitement" for this place's "true French bistro food in a true French bistro environment with true French staff and true French hospitality."
- LA Times' S. Irene gave it a lukewarm one star but does give "thanks to two hardworking French expats for bringing us a brasserie that celebrates typical French cuisine"
- LA Weekly's Jonathan Gold called it "Paris in Culver City" and a "decidedly useful bistro" with an "air of cheerful Parisian diffidence that is hard to manufacture."
- LA.com liked the food and that "the bar and waitstaff are almost entirely French [staffed], and not only that, but they are actually polite"
- Culver City Crossroads' Mary McGrath was impressed and said "it lives up to the reputation. It’s affordable, and there are no noses in the air."
Le Saint Amour
9725 Culver Blvd
Culver city, CA 90232