Photo by Anne Fishbein
DOWN IN THE GARMENT DISTRICT, RIGHT WHERE SPRING AND MAIN streets converge, there's a two-story café with a mansard roof and a brick patio. The balcony's white wrought iron is entwined with vines. This is Angélique Café, which is both a fixture and a bit of a secret, a little French gem that keeps getting discovered. I heard about Angélique from a homesick Frenchman, who swears that it is the only place that eases his malady. Indeed, there, on the patio, through the traffic noise and downtown hubbub, one hears the nasal tones and elisions of French.
The whole place, it seems, could've been airlifted from some sturdy Parisian neighborhood; even L.A.'s usual downtown grime can, with a little imagination, seem like the dust of antiquity. You can sit downstairs, inside by the refrigerated case filled with charcuterie, or outside between the sidewalks, where office workers mingle with workers wheeling huge tubs of piecework between sweatshops. There's another dining room upstairs, and a crow's-nest balcony with a few tables as well.
There is an essential Frenchness to Angélique's food, too, which, prior to eating there, I would have credited to indigenous French ingredients. Certain French foods, I was certain, taste the way they do because of the French soil, the French pig, the French strain of lettuce. My theory was dashed, however, by Angélique's kitchen and the work of a knowledgeable and talented French cook -- one Bruno Herve-Commereuc, who is originally from Normandy and owns the café with his wife, Florence, who is from Paris. Herve-Commereuc makes all his own charcuterie (with the exception of one dried sausage), and you won't find more distinctly French flavors in Los Angeles.
Breakfast is served from 7 to 11:15 a.m., and includes the usual French favorites: good coffee, croissants (plain and chocolate), baguettes with butter and jam, and omelets. All of Angélique's baked goods come from Herve-Commereuc's brother's bakery, Pain du Jour, at Lincoln and Pico in Santa Monica.
The lunch menu, however, is an extensive list of salads and hot entrées. The basic salad -- a good baby-greens mix -- has exactly the same kind of house dressing I had all over France and Switzerland last summer, whose mysterious, slightly cloudy creaminess, I finally discovered, comes from mayonnaise. The smoked-salmon salad arrives with the leaves thoroughly blanketed in the silken fish, with lots of sweet red onion and capers tossed in. There's also a salad with warmed goat cheese on toasts, and another with smoked trout.
I was unimpressed by the ratatouille, a rather ordinary stew of zucchini, green peppers, tomatoes and onions -- although I've consumed the leftovers of one order at two subsequent meals. The more popular vegetarian plate, and rightfully so, is an eggplant-and-tomato casserole, layered with mild cheese. Served with a green salad and bread, it is the perfect, fresh summer lunch.
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Angélique was once open for several nights a week, but the usual spotty downtown dinner crowds were a problem, as was the far-too-long workday put in by the chef-owner. But classic dinner entrées are available until 4 -- and, thus, for takeout.
The charcuterie basket is a must. Herve-Commereuc's rillette, a soft shredded pork slow-cooked and preserved in pork fat, is unabashedly flavorful -- salty, meaty and decadently rich. (Don't balk, it's no worse for your diet than an order of bacon.) Jambon persille is another French specialty that has never been fully embraced in this land of bologna and Kraft slices -- Americans have never shared the French fondness for gelatin's smooth, slippery bounce. In this case, chunks of ham are set in a savory gelatin with herbs and parsley, then served, like pâté and rillette, in slices. Angélique's coarse-ground country pâté (pork and liver) is redolent of herbs, pepper and wine. Also made on the premises is a pale-pink, cooked garlic sausage with its own distinct and compelling texture -- both finer and firmer than the pâté, and almost as rich as rillette. The charcuterie basket comes with good sour cornichons and mustard; my only complaint is the olives, which are ordinary old lye-cured black pitted California-style olives, and not French at all.
The chunky chicken porcini sausage is grilled crisp and bursting with juice; served with frites and mustard, it's a robust and rustic pleasure. The andouillette à l'ancienne, or tripe sausage, is assertively authentic and therefore not for the uninitiated -- it is loved, by some, for its profound funkiness. Dark-meat chicken (legs and thighs) is somehow roasted with herbes de Provence so that the flavors completely penetrate the meat. Fresh salmon is perfectly sautéed -- moist within, with just a filigree of exterior crispness -- and served with a saffron-scented lobster sauce over rice. It's exactly like a plat du jour in some small Parisian family-run café.
For dessert, have an espresso and either the chocolate mousse or crème caramel -- both are excellent. And what more would you want? Here, under the enormous Rampage billboard, a stone's throw from both the Fashion Institute and any number of once-splendid, now-squalid residential hotels, it seems a charming little miracle that this sturdy French flower has taken root, and flourishes.