Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Relaxed, Charming and Uneven - Culver City's Neighborhood French Eatery, Le Saint Amour

There's something to be said for having a cute, relaxed French eatery in your neighborhood. Perhaps it's the yearning to replicate the experiences I've had in Paris, but I'm always excited to try a new French Brasserie or Bistro that opens up around town. :) So when I heard some Hounds talk about a new French restaurant opening up in Culver City, I wrangled up some of my French Hounds and off we went to try Le Saint Amour. :)

Le Saint Amour is situated in a charming section of downtown Culver City, right where Washington Blvd. and Culver Blvd. meet, near Sony Pictures Studio. Walking up to Le Saint Amour, especially at night, is quite romantic (along the Culver entrance). Stepping inside reveals a casual, pleasant and immediately likable ambiance with wood floors, high ceilings and a simple bar and open kitchen.

Le Saint Amour is headed up by Chef-Owner Bruno Herve Commereuc (formerly of Cafe Angelique), who is also responsible for making all their Sausages and Terrines from scratch, in-house. Their menu is relatively simple, with many classic French dishes as well as a nice section highlighting their homemade Sausages and Terrines.

We start with the classic Nicoise Salad (Tomatoes, Boiled Eggs, Seared Pepper Tuna, White Anchovies, Olives).

Unfortunately it's a bit overdressed, with the Mustard Vinaigrette dousing most of the Salad too heavily. The Albacore Tuna tastes fresh, but is surprisingly salty. The White Anchovies are mild in comparison and are excellent, adding a clean, subtle brininess to the dish without overpowering.

Their Confit de Canard (Duck Confit) however, is simply delicious! :)

One of the dishes I adore is a well-prepared Duck Confit. :) I still dream about the Duck Confit I've had in Paris and Le Saint Amour's version is surprisingly good and consistent. Of the 5 times we've ordered this dish, it has been the highlight of Le Saint Amour's menu (along with some other items :).

It's been consistently delicious with a slightly crisped skin, and the interior Duck is so pure and clean in its poultry flavors, so tender and juicy as a result of the Duck being slow poached in Duck Fat that it's become one of my favorite renditions of this dish in L.A. It doesn't compare with my favorite versions in Paris, but until I go back, this will do nicely. (On my second visit, my friend visiting from Paris nodded in approval at this dish, surprised at how decent it was.)

It should also be noted that Le Saint Amour's version is extremely generous with *2* sets of Duck Legs and Thighs and a large amount of Pommes Frites (French Fries) (this was more than enough for my guest and I to share).

Their Pommes Frites on this visit are also wonderful: A subtle crispiness on the outside and soft and pillowy on the inside, with flecks of Parsley giving off a subtle herbaceous note.

On my 2nd visit, my dear friends from Paris and Provence were visiting and we arrived fortuitously on a Thursday, which is the one day a week that Le Saint Amour brings in Live Oysters and a specialist to serve them.

On this evening, the place was completely packed. We arrived 10 minutes before our reservation time but we weren't seated until 30 minutes after the reservation time due to parties staying longer than expected. But no matter, as my guests and I enjoyed some drinks at the bar while we were waiting. The hustle and bustle of the restaurant really reminded me of a simple neighborhood brasserie back in Paris.

We decide to start off with a simple Kir Royal, Raspberry. Le Saint Amour makes a respectable version, with a decent Champagne and a nice Raspberry undertone.

On Thursdays, we happily discover that Le Saint Amour features fresh Live Oysters from Christophe Happillon, a Maitre Ecailler from France. I turn to my friend from Paris and ask what a "Maitre Ecailler" is, and they hilariously reply, "a Master Shucker." :)

On this night, they were featuring 3 types of Oysters: A "Metcalf" Oyster from British Columbia, the Luna Oyster from Carlsbad, and the Endless Summer from Baja, California. The British Columbian Oysters are sweet, slightly firm yet supple and are *so* fresh. The Maitre Ecailler told us that for him, eating these are like "kissing the sea" and I'd have to agree. :)

The Luna Oysters from Carlsbad are more straightforward, rather bland, but still fresh and with a clean brininess. The Endless Summers are my favorite of the trio, a little bit salty, but vibrant and brighter than the other two. I'd happily return just for the Oysters.

The Assiette de Charcuterie (House Pates and Prosciutto) varies depending on what's available that day (made in-house by Chef Commereuc), but their Pork & Duck Rillette, Country Pate (Duck) and Pork Terrine are all well done, with nice variances in creaminess and fattiness, while still imparting the inherent flavor of the animal it's from without an overwhelming liver taste.

The Escargots (Snails, Garlic, Parsley Butter) arrive at our table still radiating heat from the cooking process. They are lightly rubbery, with a good chew and have just the right amount of Parsley Butter.

Next to arrive is the Tarte Flambee aux Poireaux et Mozarella (Thin Baked Bread with Leeks and Mozzarella). With the Mozzarella this dish felt more like a Leek Pizza than the Alsatian classic. We all thought it was ~Ok - a bit too oily and mild - but not something we'd order again.

But their next appetizer is a stunner: Merguez et Carottes au Cumin (Moroccan Lamb Sausage, Cumin Carrots). Freshly-made Merguez is unfortunately still not very common in L.A., so it's a treat to have freshly-made Merguez when given the opportunity. The Lamb Sausage is an enrapturing mixture of Harissa and Lamb, a beautiful layering of the inherent gaminess of Lamb meat and the Harissa complex spice notes in every bite.

The classic Soupe a l'Onion Gratinee (French Onion Soup) is just too sweet for my tastes. My guests from France (who happened to join me last year at Anisette) agreed and preferred Anisette's version.

Continuing on, their Terrine de Foie Gras de Canard "Maison" (Foie Gras Terrine) arrives next.

While not as lush as some recent uses of Foie Gras around town, Le Saint Amour's Foie Gras Terrine is definitely worth ordering: It's a beautiful slab of a very clean-tasting, creamy Duck Liver, but far removed from the heavy liver taste one might expect from something made of that organ. It's slightly sweet and buttery and just beautiful. :)

The Entrecote Bearnaise (Grilled Rib-Eye, Bearnaise Sauce, Pommes Frites) turns out to be a good version of the standard dish, with the Rib-Eye thankfully cooked Medium-Rare (as ordered), a decent cut of Rib-Eye (nothing outstanding), with a fine Bearnaise Sauce, with a nice herbal and buttery infusion with each bite.

We move on to desserts, starting with their Ile Flottante ("Floating Island"), a very light, pillowy Meringue "floating" on top of a little pool of Creme Anglaise, Vanilla and topped with Almonds. This is the first time I've had Ile Flottante, which turns out to be enjoyable, but I'm not that fond of Meringue in general, so I'm not sure how often I'd order this again.

Their Mousse au Chocolat a l'Orange (Chocolate & Orange Mousse) is lightly whipped, airy and has a surprisingly great balance of citrus notes from the Orange Zest and the Chocolate itself.

The Tarte Tatin (it's like an inverted or upside down Apple Tart) arrives next.

The long-cooked Apple filling is dense and firm and not too sweet.

On my 3rd visit, Le Saint Amour just debuted their new Brunch Menu. We decide to start with their Salade d'Aubergines Marinees (Eggplant, Tomato Confit, Herbs of Provence).

Imagine a slowly, gently roasted Eggplant and layers of Tomatoes, infused with Thyme, Rosemary, Oregano and Lavender. The Eggplant is seductively silky because of the slow cooking, and the Tomato Confit is delectable (it doesn't hurt that it's still Tomato season :). The herbaceous notes from the Thyme, Oregano and Rosemary all invigorate this salad, but the little bits of Lavender really elevate it. The Mixed Field Greens are also crisp and vibrant. An excellent Salad! :)

While I loved their Merguez Sausage from a previous visit, it didn't occur to me that it could be even better until I tried their Omelette Marocaine (Merguez, Ratatouille, Cilantro Omelette), which takes slices of their homemade Merguez inserted into a nicely made Omelette (thankfully not overcooked). The fluffy Eggs and Lamb Sausage and Cumin notes really complement each other.

Their Free-Range Poulet Roti (Free-Range Roasted Chicken) doesn't fare as well.

While the kitchen uses Thyme, Rosemary, Garlic, Shallots, Salt & Pepper to marinate the Chicken before roasting, none of the herbal flavors come through; it tastes mainly of Salt and Pepper. The Chicken itself is also overcooked, with even the dark meat portions being dried out. Disappointing. :(

The Croque Madame Sandwich is another nice Brunch / Lunch offering and features just the right amount of melted cheese atop the toasted, crunchy Ham and Bechamel Sandwich beneath. It's not too salty nor greasy, and when eaten with some of the Egg Yolk, it's another good version of a classic French dish.

During my 4th visit, we start off the evening with their Burrata et Tomates Confites (Burrata Cheese, Tomato Confit, Crispy Polenta, Pesto Dressing). The Tomatoes are so naturally sweet, the Burrata is gooey, luscious and the Pesto Sauce and fragrant Olive Oil tie all the ingredients together. The Crispy Polenta is the one thing that distracts in this dish: It's just too dense and starchy, and feels like the fifth wheel in an otherwise perfect combination.

One of the most curious items on the menu is their Pied de Cochon Farci (Boneless Pig Feet, Tartar Sauce).

It's curious because the rectangular-shaped object that's presented to you looks nothing like Pig's Feet at all, but when it's broken into, you realize the playfulness and inventiveness of the dish: Chef Commereuc always wanted to serve Pig's Feet but it can be a bit too messy and complicated for some diners, so after he cooks the Pig's Feet, he debones it, mixes it with some Shallots, Onions, White Wine and Mushrooms, and then wraps that mixture with a Pork Meat Puree and pan sears the whole thing before serving.

The result is the sticky, viscous taste and mouthfeel without the hassle of the bones. :) It's a touch too salty for my tastes, but otherwise it captures the essence of Pig's Foot pretty well (but I have to say the Pork Skin on some versions is something sadly missing here :).

I absolutely adore Lamb, so I was really looking forward to the Souris d'Agneau aux Flageolets (Braised Lamb Shank, Rosemary Flageolet Beans).

When the dish arrives, it has to be one of the most gargantuan versions of Lamb Shank I've seen served at a restaurant in quite some time; it's certainly a good value. :) The Lamb Shank exhibits some tenderness but retains a meaty firmness (not quite super tender), but it's a touch too gamy. It's not the inherent lambiness, but more like the off taste of being 1-2 days old (versus being cooked that day).

The Tartare de Boeuf (Steak Tartare, Raw Beef Tenderloin) is sadly, another disappointment.

Taking a bite, a wave of extreme tartness washes over you. There's just too much Caper and not enough of the Beef and other seasonings' flavors; all we could taste was extremely sour meat (not very appetizing).

And sadly, the Pommes Frites (French Fries) that accompanied the dish were also lukewarm and overly salty, nothing like the hot, crisp Frites we had with the Duck Confit previously.

The Quenelles de Brochet a la Citronelle (Pike Quenelles, Lemongrass Sauce) has been consistently good the two times we've ordered it. This large round version is the biggest Quenelle I've seen to date, but it's delicious: It's fluffy and airy and probably lighter than the Ile Flottante in some ways. The Pike meat itself is very subtle (perhaps too much so), but the accompanying "Lemongrass Sauce" complements the Quenelle nicely: I didn't taste any Lemongrass, but speaking with Chef Commereuc, it turns out this is more of a Sauce Nantua crossed with Lobster Bisque. The richness of the Lobster works well without overpowering the otherwise light dish.

Our side of Lentils arrives at this point. They are overcooked and too mushy for my preference, but still give a good earthy side note to whatever dish you choose to eat it with.

Our final savory dish of the night arrives soon after: Andouillette (Traditional Tripe Sausage, Pommes Frites).

Ah, Andouillette. Part of me wishes I wasn't speed-reading that part of the menu when I mistakenly thought I read that it was "Andouille" Sausage (something I've eaten far more of via Cajun cuisine) and ordered it. What 3 little letters will do to completely change what you thought you were going to get. (^_^;

It turns out Andouillette Sausage is something I haven't had before... until now. :) I've had Tripe before in various incarnations, but this Tripe Sausage (homemade no less) is a total "smack-you-in-the-face-and-shake-you-up" type of food. It's on par with Durian (help!) or Stinky Tofu or Natto... but worse in some ways.

Taking a bite of the homemade Andouillette... there's a completely shocking, powerful, odoriferous stinking wave that hits all your senses at once. Wow. It's really earthy and pungent and something I'd need to get used to before actively seeking it out. :)

The Haricot Verts are disappointingly soggy and overcooked as well. I'm hoping it's an off night.

For dessert, we start with their Creme Caramel which is a bit too dense, but thankfully not too sweet.

It's a delicious match with their Chateau Bernadou Muscat de Frontignan, which is a light, pleasant, sweet wine with a clean, quick finish.

Their Baba au Rhum (Cake Soaked in Rum) is a potent, rough and enchanting version of the classic: Every bite exudes a strong Rum flavor immediately hitting the palate, but is happily balanced by this light sweetness and hint of fat that helps balance the whole dish. This has consistently been sold out the last 3 times we've been there, so they must be doing something right with this dish. :)

The service at Le Saint Amour is generally friendly but very slow - by American standards - with the servers taking their time to get back to you to take drink orders, food orders and check in on you from time-to-time. In our four visits there (each with different servers), the service is pleasant, if a bit slow. Prices range from $8 - $24 for most dishes, with desserts at $7 each. We averaged about ~$52 per person (including tax and tip) for each of our visits.

While there are many "French Brasseries" around town, Le Saint Amour is one of the few that really captures the feel a simple Brasserie in Paris from the decor and ambiance, to the selection of dishes. Unfortunately, there are some hiccups in the most important area - the food and taste - that prevent Le Saint Amour from becoming a destination, but there are enough dishes that also hit the mark and satisfy to make this a charming neighborhood eatery if you're in the area.

Chef Commereuc mentions that Le Saint Amour's cooking is "family style" but he means it in the way that it's not haute cuisine, nor even fancy, top end Brasserie cooking. It's just dishes that he hopes would make you feel at home, rustic, humble and tasty. To that end, the young kitchen still needs to settle in and refine itself (cut down on the inconsistencies, heavy-handed dishes, and overcooked items), but I'll happily be back for their Live Oyster Night, Confit de Canard, Merguez Lamb Sausage, Eggplant Tomato Confit Salad and Foie Gras Terrine until they straighten out the rest of the menu. :)

Rating: 7.0 (out of 10.0)

Le Saint Amour
9725 Culver Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232
Tel: (310) 842-8155

Hours: [Lunch] Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.
[Brunch] Sun, 10:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.
[Dinner] Sun - Thurs, 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Fri - Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.


weezermonkey said...

What a wonderfully detailed review! I felt like I was there!

Now I got a hankering for French....

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

Thanks. :) Let me know if you end up trying Le Saint Amour. :)

Food, she thought. said...

What a wonderful and thorough review. Les escargots look amazing, my mouth is watering. While there is certainly plenty of delicious French bistro fare between my abode and Le Saint Amour, I feel a trip to Culver City is in my near future. Funny, though, that SIV was unhappy with her confit at LSA. I trust your opinion more than I trust hers,

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Food, she thought,

Thank you for your kind complement. :) The Escargots were really nice. I hope you give Le Saint Amour a try; I look forward to your thoughts. :)

H. C. said...

I just had the recent pleasure of checking out Le Saint Amour... as a vegetarian too! Thankfully my meal was surprisingly delightful, though I am living vivaciously through your photos & descriptions of their meat dishes (esp. the duck confit!)

I actually found the crispy polenta on the tomato confit a rather welcome contrast to the other mushy-ish components of that dish, and it did a wonderful job of soaking up the garlicky pesto and sweet roasted tomato juices without getting soggy and falling apart.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi H.C.,

Thanks for the report back on your dinner (as a vegetarian :). I'll have to try the Crispy Polenta in combination w/ your other vegetarian sides. Was it a special request or have they added a Vegetarian-specific course to the menu?


Liesl @ FabulousFashions4SensibleStyle said...

Just happened upon your lovely blog while looking up Le Saint Amour where I'll be meeting some friends for dinner and it was so helpful!

Thanks so much!

Liesl :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Liesl,

Thanks. :) I hope you enjoy your dinner at Le Saint Amour. :)

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