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Wednesday, May 16 2001
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For almost two years now, Koichiro Kikuchi has been single-handedly cooking dinner five nights a week at Bistro 21, a 20-seat restaurant tucked into the elbow of a La Cienega mini-mall that also houses a dry cleaner, a martial-arts studio and the Chinese restaurant Rice.

The tiny bistro calls to mind the original Café Blanc, only without that establishment’s austere minimalisms. There is also a touch of the Sawtelle Kitchen in the Asian-inflected French cooking. But really, Bistro 21 is a unique and personal manifestation of Kikuchi’s own culinary spirit — it’s truly a one-man kitchen, and a rarity.

Reservations are necessary, especially on weekends. Kikuchi, who formerly cooked at La Bohème and the Bel Air Hotel, has a neighborhood following — the chap dining solo by the register clearly eats here often; the beautiful double dates at the next table have also been here before, and so have half of the four guys by the wall. The drifting conversation is of movies and industry gossip, but it’s desultory, no power dining here, just friends and/or lovers having dinner.

The dining room is candle-lit, the tables white-clothed, with generic clunky dark wood bistro chairs. The main attempt at décor is a length of crumpled transparent gray silk floating between the kitchen and the dining area. The servers are smiling young women, at once eager to please and painfully shy.

Kikuchi mans the kitchen. A dishwasher works behind him, and on my last visit, there was a young man in the kitchen who seemed to spend most of his time standing at a respectful distance. As anyone who has ever tried it knows, cooking for even six people is a challenge: Just try to get all the plates out at once, each piping hot, tidily presented and complete. Add to this several courses and different entrées, and Kikuchi’s solo task begins to seem like a nightly marathon. His concentration is palpable. A handsome, lean man, he moves efficiently and purposefully, and his attention seems deep, interior, meditative.

Part of Kikuchi’s challenge is to make his performance appear effortless, lest any sense of pressure discomfit his guests. Some nights, naturally, run more smoothly than others. One night, with an early reservation, we were the first seated and our food came out, if not quickly, at least at a reasonable pace. Another night, with an 8:30 reservation, we were the last seated of three new tables, and thus watched as first one table received appetizers, then, 10 minutes later, the next table received them. After another 10 minutes, it was our turn. The entrées repeated this pattern, only at much longer intervals — eternities.

“It’s not like I’m bored by the company,” one of my dining companions blurted before the entrées arrived, “but this dinner is exceeding my conversational capacities.” A more attentive server might have eased the wait — by bringing more drinks or bread, or even an encouraging word. Instead, the more time passed, the further our shy waitress retreated, afraid, it would seem, even to glance our way. Dinner that night was a full two and a half hours, start to finish — a trek, especially since Kikuchi’s seasonal cooking was hit or miss.

Appetizers, on the whole, get the meals off to a good start. Nicely seared foie gras sits on a warm, thick slice of what I first think is pear — the granular softness is there, but the sweetness is not; it is, in fact, baked daikon. House-cured salmon is silken and delicious, and oysters baked with pesto, though few (four), are warm, plump and terribly sexy. But a white-asparagus salad with heirloom tomatoes is expensive; the asparagus is raw and sliced lengthwise — stretched? — and the pretty jewel-toned tomatoes are mushy and low in flavor.

Kikuchi can hit with precision: Duck with a black-olive sauce, for example, brings out a depth of flavor, almost a fruitiness, in both ingredients. And I liked the intense dose of mustard in the fillet’s dark, winy sauce — even if it was billed on the menu as a sesame ginger sauce! The plates, however, are far too busy. The fillet has both scalloped and mashed potatoes, plus some corn kernels and baby turnips; the small, nicely crusted wedge of salmon comes with mashed potatoes, mashed turnip, some unidentified orange substance, more of that corn, and various other small bits of vegetables. Almost every plate is also bestrewn with deep-fried crisp things (shreds of potatoes, leeks, green onions) and/or seaweed. Too much garni! The effect is a signature murkiness.

Desserts run the gamut from divine to poor. Chocolate tarte, part cake and part pie, gives intense, bittersweet satisfaction, while a miserably small slice of white-chocolate cheesecake proves to be dry and bland besides. A puff-pastry shell is filled with a fluorescent-orange red-pepper mousse — it’s unusual and surprisingly good, like a sweeter, fluffier pimento cheese.

Still, for all its fits and starts and overgarnishing, Bistro 21 has an inarguable allure — the chef is right there, in plain sight, cooking just for you.

846 N. La Cienega Blvd.; (310) 967-0021. Open Tues.–Sat. for dinner only. Entrées $18–$26. Wine and beer. Parking in lot. AE, MC, V.

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