Paris Trance: Searching for the Authentic at Monsieur Marcel 

Thursday, May 1 2003
Photo by Anne Fishbein

Monsieur Marcel, which somehow finesses that very French mix of bar and café, may employ the most charming French waiter in Los Angeles. I’ve heard that there are classes for French businessmen coming to America, classes that parse the cultural arcana, such as how close to stand to an American in conversation, how late one can be to a dinner or a business meeting, and how to behave toward women without inadvertently stumbling into the thicket of sexual harassment. Well, this waiter bypassed any such course. A tall, bright-eyed, big-handed, self-possessed Frenchman, he is so unabashedly flirtatious and, as my mother would say, so full of it, we American women hardly know what to make of him! But that’s part of the restaurant’s charm — and even makes it more authentic.

Imagine one of a thousand small Parisian cafés or wine bars with sidewalk seating and classic plats du jour, then plunk it down in the southeast corner of the Farmers Market on Fairfax and Third, and you have an excellent idea of Monsieur Marcel, an establishment subtitled Pain, Vin et Fromage. (The modest restaurant is only one component in M. Marcel’s small empire, which also includes a French gourmet shop, a grocery store and widely scattered gift items.) You may grab a stool in the bar area or stake out the one communal table; or, for a more self-contained dining experience, plant yourself on one of the market’s typical folding chairs at a wobbly table.

You can drink wine with friends, nosh on cheese, eat several courses and, when so inclined, even smoke. (The Farmers Market, despite its overlapping awnings and roofed stalls, is still technically an outdoor location.) The scent of smoke, in fact, only makes the place more reminiscent of Paris. The pain is from La Brea Bakery, the vin is French, by the bottle or glass, and the fromage is served, with typical Farmers Market informality, pre-cut on cellophane-wrapped plates.

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Spotting my new pair of ventilator oxfords, our flirtatious waiter gasps in appreciation and grabs my thigh to examine them more closely. I don’t mind — and why should I? He proceeds to carry on exuberantly with many customers, and I watch him render even the most articulate and intelligent woman speechless. Women drift by the stall, looking for him with a studied casualness, their cheeks then turning a pretty, mottled pink once he greets them.

That said, the food — well, the food veers from lovely and heartening to awful. A chalkboard menu advertises the daily specials, the quiche of the day, and the tapas, small plates to eat at the bar with a glass of wine. There’s also a lengthy menu with the salads, quiches and plats du jour, wine lists, cheese lists, a separate sandwich menu. Once you’re seated, you’re given small containers of spiced olives — they’ll encourage your thirst! — and once you’ve ordered, out comes warmed olive-and-rosemary rolls.

The bread and the wine and some of the cheeses are terrific. Otherwise, the trick is to locate and eat the freshest items, and not order the stewed things stashed in the walk-in for days on end. Among the best dishes are a huge Belgian endive salad with lots of Maytag blue cheese and walnuts, and the Monsieur Marcel salad, greens with small slices of a goat Brie and a terrific winy dry salami. The warm goat-cheese salad has a little too much sweet dressing, and the niçoise seems a murky mélange of cooked rice and canned tuna on greens. Spicy lamb “merguez” sausages are a fine choice and come with good frites, as do the classic moules marinière, mussels steamed in white wine and a touch of cream.

The blanquette de veau, veal chunks in a white wine and crème fraîche sauce, seems newly made, full of flavor, juicy and hearty, just what you want on a chilly spring night. Not so the calamari “à la Catalan,” squid in a tomato-and-olive sauce, which had been cooked days before so that the squid is discolored and spongy. Coq au vin is not, as promised on the menu, a chicken leg, but a dried-out breast with all the long-refrigerated flavor of last week’s leftovers.

The chocolate mousse is dark, rich and intense, and the crème brûlée perfect. The cheese, stored in the refrigerator, is too cold; if you order it, give it time to warm up. A trio of French raw-milk cheeses includes a decent, if underripe, Reblochon and an excellent aged Comte. The American selection — Maytag blue, aged jack and a triangle-shaped goat — is smartly chosen, but plated so long ago that the goat is tufted with white mold, the green grapes are half-brown, and the olives are desiccated.

On my most recent visit, however, the refrigerator boasts far fewer pre-assembled plates. And everything, including the waiter, is perfectly fresh.

Monsieur Marcel, 6333 W. Third St., Los Angeles; (323) 939-7792. Lunch and dinner Mon.–Thurs. 10:30 a.m.–9 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 10:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m., Sun. 10:30 a.m.–8 p.m. Plat du jour $6.99–$10.99. Wine only. Lot parking. AE, MC, V.

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