My first visit to Emmanuel, on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, was any diners dream. Here it was, a small Cal-French bistro with a professional wait staff, a compelling menu and food that delivered what it promised and more. Now, I thought, I wont have to drive all the way to Joes in Venice whenever I want this kind of food. Emmanuels chef, Thomas Muñoz, was last at Joes, although after Joe Millers tenure there. Still, the two prix fixe menus, the signature roast beef and recurring touches of fourme dambert all hearken back to Millers brilliant formula for casual, midpriced, non-elitist fine dining.
Emmanuel, subtitled An American Bistro, succeeded the similar, slightly quirkier French-English bistro Perroche. The dining room has been only slightly reconfigured Perroches booths have been replaced by banquettes so the modest little room can accommodate a handful more diners. One wall is mirrored so that the space may appear larger; the opposite wall now bears a large example of textile art, a series of navy blue pie wedges. Otherwise, the enormous, spare iron chandelier, which suggests an abstracted wagon wheel, still dominates the space. Not a sophisticated, interesting or even very pretty space. But comfortable enough when the food is good, and the service prompt.
And what better time to judge than on a Saturday night, a few weeks after Emmanuel has received its first good newspaper notice, and people are lined up for tables? Amid this bustle we claimed a table along the banquette, and went on to eat one of the best meals Ive had so far this year. As often happens, the items on the prix fixe menus seemed more alluring and we were in luck: Although theyre not priced, you can still order them. A warm bacon and goat cheese salad was nothing fancy, but a perfect prelude to a meat entrée: lightly dressed frisée mined with little flavor bombs of cheese and smoky bacon. I had some trepidation about ordering the foie gras price unseen recently, at Chadwick, a tiny disc of the stuff ran $19 but it was delicious, seared rare, on thin slices of pear, not overly sweetened with black-pepper honey. (The pleasure increased in retrospect on learning the indulgence was a mere $9.) From the à la carte appetizer menu, the beet salad with watercress, pear and hazelnuts was gratifyingly generous, and good, but the beets were in a heap of paper-thin slices and were a little overcooked; chunks, slightly more toothsome, would have been a better cut. (Nitpicking!)
Entrées also enchanted: The juicy rib eye steak with potatoes mashed with that blue fourme dambert cheese was a true celebration of well-aged edibles. Venison, off the prix fixe menu, came with floppy, earthy mushroom ravioli and fava beans in a tasty broth, not too rich. And the classic rare roast beef (tenderloins, cooked to order) and mashed potatoes were cleverly enhanced with crisped, surprising slivers of artichoke. Each entrée was distinctive, well-executed, a different pleasure.
Desserts eased us off our high. Not bad, but definitely the weakest course, a chocolate torte with raspberries was a little dry, the individual apple pie a little tough both apples and crust.
But even this minor letdown did not prepare me for my next Emmanuel experience. On a weekday, early, the service was slow, the kitchen was slower and the food bore so little resemblance to the earlier meal, I wouldve happily believed the chef was not present if I couldnt see him in the kitchen, if he hadnt come out to talk with the customers.
An endive salad had a meager two petals of Belgian endive draped over a regular green salad, along with walnuts and blue cheese. Better was the juicy, lemony artichoke and arugula salad. An appetizer off the prix fixe menu couldnt have been less interesting: a perfectly flavorless, textureless scallop (supposedly grilled, but tasting canned) wrapped in a strip of cold bacon. I was surprised, to say the least.
Entrées exacerbated the disappointment. A peculiar pork chop, thin and with many small bones, had the sour gaminess of cheap pork; its bed of sweet potatoes cooked sometime in the past was barely rewarmed, and the whole dish was an unappetizing monochromatic brown. Crispy chicken was not it was soggy and stringy, not to mention fuchsia from beet juice. The pistachio-crusted halibut, vaunted by the waiters, was a remarkably tasteless, overcooked piece of fish on some very good, chewy, round Israeli couscous.
Emmanuel is not expensive, nor large; its profit margin cant be big; one doesnt expect the highest-end ingredients. The pressure, therefore, is on the cooks nightly sleight of hand to make more ordinary ingredients sublime and Muñoz can do this.
Consistency is the great elusive virtue in restaurants. (Perroche fell prey to a lack thereof.) Its amazingly difficult to keep up the quality of a dish; its hard and boring and requires vigilance a chef once said that it took three days for a dish shed designed to become unrecognizable on the production line of her restaurant. Emmanuels kitchen has made clear the spectrum of its abilities the talent is clearly there. The hard part, the ability to hew to the possible excellence, remains to be seen.
11929 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; (818) 766-3128. Open Mon.Fri. for lunch and dinner, Sat. dinner only; closed Sun. DC, MC, V.