The Grove is a sanitized and compact city unto itself -- nothing old or ugly or dirty or shabby or sad. Rambling through recently, I can‘t get over how many people are laughing and smiling. Couples, children, seniors -- an unlikely number of people in such a good mood at the same place and same time. I’d parked next door, at the old Farmers Market, where it was business as usual, the workaday world. But here in the Grove, even I am smiling -- what‘s that about? Do they pump laughing gas into the gleaming theme-park atmosphere?
When I come to jets of water dancing to music, I do laugh -- out loud -- and not a completely cynical or ironic laugh, either. Those jets hitting the high notes at 20, 30 feet are so benignly funny. It’s the week before Thanksgiving during an unsettlingly late-in-the-year heat wave, but with Christmas carols crooning from loudspeakers and big wintry crystal stars hanging from wires, there‘s a distinctly holiday feel. And there are so many nuclear families it’s hard to believe that they now make up a minority of households in this country. Oh, look! There‘s a man in his wheelchair waving lovingly, longingly at his small son, who is drawing away atop the double-decker trolley. (It only goes a few hundred yards.) The place looks like an advertisement for the good life, American style. Or maybe it is the good life. At any rate, it’s clear that nobody here is thinking very hard about Iraq.
Morels, the theme park‘s French-themed restaurant, is right by the dancing waters, and its cheery, idealized Continental touches -- the cheese counter, the colorful wall of paintings, the charm of its sidewalk dining area -- lured us inside. Hey, Cafe Flore ain’t half this cute.
”Is this a franchise or a chain?“ we ask the hostess.
”Yes, er, no, er, yes . . . I mean, there‘s only one like this,“ she says, then blurts, ”It’s the Market City Cafe.“
Aah, makes sense. The place is cleverly set-dressed, a good-natured cartoon. The hexagonal tile floor, the zinc bar, the wood paneling are authentic enough, the faux tin ceiling and ironwork less convincing. But the schoolhouse lights, open kitchen and blaring big-band music are pure U.S. of A.
Like the decor, the food is Americanized, with the more palatable and charming French elements magnified and the earthier, ruder aspects of French cuisine downplayed or eliminated. Sometimes this is good -- we‘re glad the restrooms are French, for example.
Having spent two weeks on the French Riviera this fall, I’ve had a fair amount of Mediterranean fish soup -- a light-brown roux-based thick concoction with no visible fish -- the fish is ground up in the thickened broth. Morels‘ version has captured an essence of the soup without exposing us to its earthiness or fishiness; this version is sublimely pasteurized, smooth and silken as baby food, very mild -- but something about it does taste like fish soup. Even the ”garlic sauce“ on the floating toasts evokes the tang of real rouille, fish soup’s traditional accompaniment. This is, in short, what Campbell‘s would make of fish soup, and while it’s too sanitized and denatured for me, it may introduce and embolden a whole new population to start eating a great dish.
The frisee aux lardons salad is a less successful crossover. Traditionally, lardons (chunky squares of bacon) have a beguiling heft and chewiness and are, to my mind, the main reason to order such a salad. Morels‘ lardons, unfortunately, are actually thin pats of curiously tasteless bacon -- in fact, I’ve never tasted such saltless bacon. The prosciutto sandwich is freighted with lettuce and mozzarella -- in Paris, the same thing might just be bread and ham and maybe a thick smear of sweet butter.
Delighted to find an omelet with pommes frites on the menu, I order one, soft. It comes cooked to death. Our cheerful waiter takes it back, but I don‘t get another for half an hour (apparently it took another two tries). The final product, with a mild cheese and mushrooms, is very good, especially with the 99-cent green salad.
Steak frite is a thin, tasty, pleasurably textured cut, like a skirt steak. All the saltiness missing from the above-mentioned lardons apparently went into the quiche, which has a very buttery crust and, like the omelet, is cooked to death -- the top is a dark baked-in brown. Macaroni and cheese, however, is subdued, good al dente mac in a mild white cheese sauce, a perfect side for a child.
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As for cheese, Morels offers it in several classic preparations: the very popular fondue pot, a Gruyere souffle with morel mushrooms, and -- as drinkers say -- neat. The extensive, excellent cheese list is compiled by the house cheese specialist, Debbie Adelman, who ran the cheese counter at a Whole Foods for years. She consults with us personally and sends out five cheeses on a wooden board with dates and slivers of dried apricot. Two of the cheeses -- a raw-milk epoisses and the reblochon -- are beautifully, perfectly ripe. And the Indiana-made Capriole Farms aged goat cheese cured in bourbon and wrapped in chestnut leaves has some novelty value. But a mild, soft brebis (sheep’s-milk cheese) needs more age, as does a disappointing Swiss Gruyere.
Any good French meal ends in chocolate, and Morels offers a big old goblet of dense chocolate mousse -- topped with a lot of thick, barely sweetened whipped cream.
Leaving this small French wonderland, I wandered out through the old Farmers Market and felt like I was shedding tons of feel-good pressure. People weren‘t smiling like maniacs in the Farmers Market. They were taking their French-dipped sandwiches and falafels and looking for a place to eat them, or clustered with friends over plastic cups of beer, eating pie at Du-Par’s. Driving away, right on the corner of Third and Fairfax, a small group of people carried signs that said: ”Peace, No War, Stay Out of Iraq. Bombs Kill Little Children Too.“ Reality -- and it made me cry.
Morels French Steak House and Bistro, 189 The Grove Drive, Suite H10, Los Angeles; (323) 965-9595. Open for lunch and dinner Sun.--Thurs. 11:30 a.m.--10 p.m. and Fri.--Sat. 11:30 a.m.--mid. Entrees $7.95--$16.75. AE, D, DC, MC,V.