Confit, Where Art Thou?
Finding good confit is not easy in Los Angeles. Making it is a long process: Seasoned duck is salt-cured, slow-cooked in rendered fat, and put up in jars to mellow for a month or more. Its worth the wait. Confit is not only functional -- its an archaic method of food preservation -- its magical: duck refined and perfected, stripped of everything inessential. The outcome is not sodden with fat, but concentrated, nutty and succulent.
Yearning for confit, I recently visited Bistro de lHermitage, on the left bank of the Ballona Creek in Culver City. Bistro de lHermitage is small, with large windows that face an outdoor seating area, and is buffered from traffic by verdant trees that almost obscure the restaurant. There are some of the outward trappings of a bistro: the ardoise listing the plats du jour, a long, honey-colored bar with plenty of stools, and the proprietor himself stationed at the bar. It is not an unfriendly space, but it feels a bit antiseptic, un-lived-in.
The menu touts an evening wine bar, but the proprietor seemed taken aback to have a customer at the otherwise empty bar. I was thirsty for sparkling wine at the end of a hot day, but he was out, so I drank a chardonnay-based kir made with what the menu described as wild berry syrup. A good kir requires cold, cold aligote and a healthy dollop of cassis, and an adequate kir may be made with a crisp, unoaked chardonnay, but this kir was anemic, containing but a miserly thimbleful of the promised syrup. I examined the small, not-well-priced wine list, drank a glass of too-warm gigondas and ordered some rillettes. The rillettes were alarmingly pink, lardy rectangles of coarse pork. I overlooked their color, wondering if these were special Culver City--style rillettes, and found them pleasant enough but lacking seasoning.
When my party arrived, the proprietress quickly seated us outside beneath trees draped with small lights. I ordered a bottle of wine, then asked her if the foie gras pate was made on-site. She cheerfully exclaimed, Oh no, we leave that to the experts! The thin slab of liver mousse was creamy, but its flavors were muted: commercial quality and nothing more. The chevre chaud was a nice nut brown, but the goat cheese was gummy with flour. Our charcuterie platter had thin slices of good saucisson sec (dry sausage), Paris ham and a chunk of insipid pate maison of the same garish hue as the rillettes. Engrossed in conversation, I realized halfway through the bottle shed brought that we had been given a wrong (and inferior) bottle of sancerre.
Even worse, the restaurant was out of confit. Instead I got the rack of lamb, which was juicy, cooked as ordered with a well-charred crust. All the entrees, including a tender fillet of beef, came with chunky, reasonably good mashed potatoes and mixed sauteed vegetables, including haricots verts and shredded cabbage. Our second bottle of wine was more successful: a dependable 1999 Chapoutier Crozes-Hermitage. Dessert was a choice of tarte Tatin and tarte Tatin. We shared the serviceable tart over cups of underextracted Illy espresso. The proprietress inventoried the cheese plate: pont leveque, Camembert and something smelly. Served cold, hard and underripe, the cheese plate, at $10, was not a bargain. Left out overnight, however, the leftover scraps were delicious. A simple thing, but why couldnt the restaurant do the affinage?
I returned a second time, determined to satisfy my craving for confit. During the day, Bistro de lHermitage buzzed with the local studio crowd, and the perfume of red-oak smoke wafted over from the Santa Maria BBQ Company next door. Our jocular waiter insisted that the confit was too vast to work as an appetizer. Not entirely appeased, we asked for two orders of the escargot. They were plump, and served in proper garlic-parsley butter. The pureed lentil soup was well-spiced, but the tomato basil soup was beige and tasted strongly of neither tomato nor basil. The merguez sandwich was enjoyable, but ultimately not spicy enough. The salade nicoise arrived in a bowl and looked promising, with bright haricots verts and generous fillets of anchovy, but the salad was underdressed and the tuna was dry. One bright note: The handsome portion of lamb stew, fragrant with tomatoes and herbs, and studded with black olives.
My duck confit? It was stringy, its skin flabby with unrendered nodules of fat. The compliant food automaton that I am, I ate it all.
9727 Culver Blvd., Culver City; (310) 815-8222. Open for lunch Tues.--Fri. 11:45 a.m.--3 p.m. and for dinner 5:45--9 p.m. Entrees $15--$25. Beer and wine. Takeout. Street parking. AE, D, DC, MC, V.
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