The Place: La Cachette Bistro, 1733 Ocean Ave., Santa Monic;, (310) 434-9509.
The Hours: Tuesday through Friday from 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 6 p.m. until closing at the bar.
The Deals: A well-edited selection of quality beer, wine and cocktails from $5 to $9, dozens of small plates for $6 to $12.
What did we think? Turn the page to find out...
The Digs: There's no denying that La Cachette is in an awkward location, albeit one with infinite potential. The restaurant is positioned across from swanky ocean front hotels -- the sort of big spenders who might appreciate Jean Francois Meteigner's fantastic rendition of duck pate. Yet the bistro faces the wrong side of the street for the $500 a night hotel crowd, as the only view of the shore here is that Ocean Avenue street sign.
La Cachette is also out of sight from downtown Santa Monica, so those Promenade tourists these days seem to wind up at one of the glitzy rooftop restaurants in the Santa Monica mall, paying entirely too much for that cheap Cabernet. We'd rather be sipping one of bartender Chris Guilmet's latest White Fairy creations (gin, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, egg white, absinthe spritz). Then there's the parking issue, as valet is pretty much a requirement here. Add in the building's corporate landlord leanings, and the atmosphere doesn't do justice to food that takes you, if only for the night, to a countryside bistro in France.
The upside? Here, it's well worth the valet. The all night Happy Hour in the bar section means you can have that elegant date night or a casual bistro supper, depending on your mood, anytime you want it here. There is also more of a bistro vibe in the bar, both price and food-wise, that the more formal dining room doesn't quite elicit. For locals looking for a leisurely and refreshingly trend-free supper, La Cachette's Happy Hour is one of the best kept secrets in town.
The Verdict: To clarify, this isn't so much a Happy Hour menu as it is one offering small plates unique to the bar area. What you'll find are Meteigner's classic French dishes with a touch of his Italian grandmother's marinara sauce and that ubiquitous California farmers market focus on the side.
Beverage-wise, this is not the $4 well drinks sort of Happy Hour, meaning don't expect bargain basement drink deals. These are good values for unusual finds: St. Sylvestre Gavroche, a French red ale that you don't often see at discount prices ($7, normally $10), a 2009 Santa Barbara Pinot Noir from Flying Goat Cellars that is normally $12 is now $7. The cocktail must-try is the "Negroni Bistro." Here, the gin-sweet vermouth-Campari classic is made with Carpano Antica, one of our favorite sweet vermouths for straight-sipping, and a splash of Benedictine. Sure, that $9 (in lieu of $12) bar price tag isn't the best deal in town, but these aren't inexpensive ingredients. We'd rather a bar stick to the original cocktail and charge only a few bucks rather than slash the price in half and serve up a half-octane margarita.
Edible options on our visit include more than two dozen small-plates, the vast majority in the $8 to $9 range. Order two or three and call it a meal, but we recommend going with a friend for more taste-and-share options. The Francophile side of things -- cod croquettes, pan-fried smelts with aioli -- are tempered by Meteigner's appetite for paella (excellent), octopus salad with cucumbers, grass-fed beef tartar with house-baked chips, and steamed clams in ginger broth. You get the idea.
Nor is Meteigner the sort to make wise small-plate business moves, say buying charcuterie from the latest hipster artisan in town so he can shout from his menus that he supports local businesses (and save himself gobs of charcuterie-making time and money in the process). This chef prefers to make do things the old fashioned way -- himself.
Even if, as he says of the assorted charcuterie he makes that "it takes so long and is so expensive, I don't know why I still do it. I can't make money on it." And so we like to think of those generous slices ($7, enough for two to share) as meaty, and surprisingly lean bistro gifts from the chef (amuse bouche seems entirely too stuffy for a bistro). The head cheese on the charcuterie plate? A reminder that those pig ears at Animal may get all the buzz, but classic French cooking has never ceased to make for a beautifully text message-free evening.
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SHOW ME HOW
On that note, if you expect your Happy Hour hangouts to be full of Twitterati typing Kim Kardashian wedding updates to their online "friends," this is not the Happy Hour for you. It is sort of place where people at the bar actually occasionally engage in real conversations with whomever is sitting at the bar table next to them. Conversations about that house-smoked trout, the sort of dish so delicately enrobed in smoke that you feel inclined to share the news: "Yes, you really do want the trout." We should stop here.
But instead, we end with that sautéed foie gras and sweet corn crème brûlee. Although listed under the savory small plates, that nugget of foie gras resting on glassy caramelized sugar works fine for dessert. Just fine.
Because during what is usually the trendiest (for better and worse) food and drink hour, some nights all we really want during Happy Hour is a really good crème brûlee.
Overall Grade: A