Those of us who love restaurants tend to have a specific memory of where and when that affair began — an origin story for our dining obsession. And while fine dining is fading in its importance, it's still the thing that wowed many of us in the first place.
My origin story comes in the form of a chocolate soufflé. I was at a restaurant for my best friend's 10th birthday, undoubtedly the fanciest restaurant I had experienced to that point in my short life. I remember the plush banquette, the hushed room. But it was dessert, a towering chocolate soufflé, that seized my attention. It was that dessert that made my small heart say to me, in its small voice, "Ahhh. This is what I want in life."
At Maison Giraud, Alain Giraud's French bistro and bakery in Pacific Palisades, there are a lot of reminders of why we loved dining in the first place, up to and including a giant, glorious, piping-hot chocolate soufflé that instantly made me feel like the most sophisticated 10-year-old on the block. Giraud cooks a brand of classic French nouvelle cuisine that's both endangered in the United States and intensely comforting to those of us who came of dining age during its heyday.
Giraud has a résumé long and complex enough to warrant an article of its own, so consider this the condensed version: He was born and raised in France, where he went to cooking school and worked at many high-end French restaurants and hotels from the early 1970s through the late '80s. In 1988 he arrived in Los Angeles, where he got a job with Michel Richard at Citrus. Since then, he has helmed the kitchens at many temples to French cuisine, including Lavande in Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, Bastide (which he opened) and Anisette.
Maison Giraud, which Giraud opened in November, is less a temple and more a quiet homage. The restaurant sits just at the edge of fine dining, neither too stuffy nor too casual. Your waiter may have a French accent and a clipped manner, and your table certainly will have a cloth on it. But that cloth may still have the faint ring of red wine on it from the previous diner, and the waiter may be absent for long stretches. These read like complaints but aren't really. Maison Giraud exhibits a kind of unconcerned elegance that suits it, and the neighborhood, well.
Giraud looks down benevolently from the back wall of the restaurant, in photos as a boy holding a tray of food on the left and as his current, fatherly self on the right. Between the two photos is a blackboard that lists ingredients and inspirations, and also Giraud's résumé, divided into his years in France and then in California. Below this is a bakery counter, with breads and pastries from pastry chef Noubar Yessayan, who has worked with Giraud since his days at Bastide.
It's with this bread that your meal begins. Sliced baguette served with high-quality butter lets you know that this is a pastry kitchen and bakery to be reckoned with.
It also sets the stage for what can be a lesson in classic French comfort. Giraud excels in simple luxuries: an eggshell, hollowed out and refilled with egg custard and savory chantilly and topped with caviar. Fat scallops come with a melting leek fondue for an appetizer so rich it could almost be an entrée.
With foie gras banned in California as of July 1, it does you no good for me to extoll the virtues of Giraud's seared foie with favas and blood orange, but let's just say it was another example of taking opulence and presenting it simply and perfectly.
Every day Giraud serves a classic French dish en cocotte, in a small white baking dish. The best of these that I tried was veal, stewed until tender in a rich sauce and served with beautifully trimmed little yellow carrots. The French are masters at decadent comfort. On the lighter side, a lovely piece of loup de mer was perfectly seared and served over baby artichokes and tomato confit with a basil pistou. There's nothing earth-shattering here, just good ingredients presented in their best light.
But there are oddities to this restaurant, issues of cooking and ingredient choices that point clearly, in some cases, to taking the easy way out rather than hewing to strict quality. I don't know why, for instance, a chef and restaurant of this caliber would choose to serve farm-raised Atlantic salmon. It might be an issue of pricing, but at $23 I'd rather pay a few more dollars for wild salmon or eat another fish entirely. Greens that come as salad for many dishes aren't dressed in anything interesting and seem a bit tired, as if they came out of one of those industrial-size bags of mesclun mix. A small bowl of fruit-heavy white gazpacho comes surrounded by vegetable salad, and while I admire the dish's light aesthetic, the veggies — haricots verts, beets, squash — lacked any discernible snap or point of interest. It tasted like upscale diet food, which it essentially was, but even diet food doesn't have to taste quite this boring.
A piece of quiche at lunch had a lovely crust, but rather than the fat, rich, creamy, eggy quiche befitting a place like this, what I got was less than two inches thick, basically a slightly better version of the kind you buy prepackaged at the supermarket. And on a recent Sunday evening (perhaps a night off for the kitchen's most important players? I hope so), a $32 beef tenderloin au poivre came out cooked tepidly — as if it had been steamed rather than cooked in a pan — and surrounded by slightly overcooked haricots verts and very overcooked purple potatoes. Both that quiche and the tenderloin reminded me of lunch and dinner at an exclusive home for the elderly.
If Maison Giraud reminds us of what made us love restaurants in the first place, it also reminds us of the strides that the best places have made in the meantime. It's confusing: The things about this place that need improvement are simple issues of ingredient sourcing and careful cooking. The hard things — the bread, the fussy egg with caviar, the beautifully cooked piece of fish — they get exactly right.
The soufflé, they get exactly right. Almost as big as your head, the lofty dessert is a sight to behold as it swooshes though the dining room on the way to your table. It is airy, hot, sugary and goopy in all the right ways. It reminds us of the history and technique required to cook this kind of food well. More importantly, it makes your heart whisper, "Ahhh. This is what I want in life."
MAISON GIRAUD | 1032 Swarthmore Ave., Pacific Palisades | (310) 459-7561 | maison-giraud.com | Breakfast and dinner daily; lunch Mon.-Fri.; brunch Sat. & Sun. | Reservations accepted but not required | Wine | Street parking and validated parking in lot behind restaurant