Much of the life of a critic involves driving around to various restaurants that someone or other has recommended. "It's a hidden gem!" they'll say, a place for some strange reason everyone has chosen to ignore. Eight times out of 11, these promises of sublimity don't quite pan out. The great underrated gem is more myth than reality. Most restaurants are either overrated or rated just about right.
This is my excuse for failing to get myself to Papilles Bistro. I had long heard rumors of its quality and charm, but it all seemed a little too good to be true. A young chef doing an affordable daily prix fixe in the corner of a strip mall wedged into the armpit of Franklin Avenue and the 101 freeway? The online menus looked nice but unremarkable.
I drove by all the time but never swung into the small parking lot. The sign and window coverings made it look like a musty old spot that had been there for 40 years and fallen into obscurity. I kept meaning to check it out, but something else always seemed more pressing.
A few weeks back, I finally followed through and made a reservation. And now it's my turn to urge you to believe that this place really is that mythical beast: the underrated and mainly undiscovered restaurant.
This isn't to say that Papilles Bistro has gone totally ignored. It opened in late 2011, and over the next year appeared on a few "best" lists around town. Irene Virbila reviewed it for the L.A. Times and gave it two stars. But aside from showing up on Internet food forums whenever anyone brings up the "most underrated restaurants in L.A." question, Papilles has pretty much chugged along with a small but enthusiastic pool of regular diners and without much attention from anyone else.
Which really is a shame. Step through the door at the corner of that strip mall and you find yourself in a homey space that's one-third kitchen and two-thirds seating, with a pass in between for pushing out food. There's a worn, cozy feel to the room, which has a back wall lined with wine, a pressed-tin ceiling, a tile floor and simple wooden tables and chairs. It reminds me of a neighborhood restaurant in New York or Paris, the type of place not touched by time or trends. L.A. could use more restaurants like this.
It's no coincidence that Papilles feels like a casual Paris eatery. Chef/owner Tim Carey was heavily influenced by the French bistronomy movement when he opened Papilles with business partner and wine director Santos Uy. Bistronomy aimed to combine serious gastronomy with the more casual feel of a bistro. In L.A., Trois Mec has received most of the attention when it comes to importing the movement, but in some ways Papilles is more pure in its homage. Rap music and lack of tablecloths alone do not signal casual dining. The price tag at Papilles is far more in line with the word "casual."
Carey serves a daily prix fixe for around $36, which is a hell of a good deal given the quality of the food. The menu lists a few wines by the glass; if you want a bottle, Uy will invite you to get up and peruse the wall of wine, which is set up like a shop, with prices listed on the bottles themselves. He's also happy to discuss your tastes and make recommendations, and his collection skews Old World, natural and funky. This is a restaurant with personality, and the wine shows it.
For dinner, you might start with a velouté, perhaps butternut squash or cauliflower. It's here that you'll begin to taste Carey's training, and in particular his time spent at Patina. There are touches that only someone trained in serious fine dining would think of. In the impossibly silky cauliflower velouté, garnishes of pepitas, pomegranate and tiny pickled cauliflower florets all burst in different ways, the pickled cauliflower in particular releasing just enough fruity, puckery vinegar to make your palate tingle.
There's often a first course of chicken liver mousse that's practically melted onto a piece of brioche, like a savory, butter-laden French toast, topped with a raisin gastrique that delivers a punch of acidic fruitiness. There's a lot of pâté in this town, much of it served on toast, and almost none as indulgently delicious as this.
Proteins, such as fish or flat iron steak, are cooked so well that it's like eating in another era, one in which technique was king and creativity came a distant second. The flat iron in particular is a bit of a marvel, with the aura of stewed meat in its tenderness and flavor but cooked a perfect medium-rare. Scallops served one night with chard and dollops of sweet potato were barely seared and cooked so lightly in so much butter they tasted almost butter-poached. They swam in a truffle vinaigrette that tasted bright and tangy and of real truffles (not truffle oil).
With almost every dish, you find hints of a chef who thinks deeply about his cooking and about your experience of it as a diner. There's a lot of consideration given to balance and acid — that vinaigrette on the scallops, the pops of pickle in the soup, the gastrique on the pâté. A lovingly cooked piece of swordfish doused in beurre blanc comes with small piles of chard arranged on the plate for visual appeal, but when you put your fork to them you find them cut into strips to make them easier to eat. This seems like a small thing, but it's the exact kind of knife work and consideration that many, many chefs forget. There's a hospitality to this type of cooking that I often find myself missing in new restaurants.
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For dessert, you typically can choose cheese (for a $5 supplement), a rustic tart or pot de crème. One night shortly after Thanksgiving, though, the only sweet option was pumpkin pie, which I had just about eaten my weight in during the previous week. I questioned the rationale behind serving something that everyone was surely sick of at this time of year. But when I tasted Carey's version, lighter and creamier than the standard, I found myself seduced by pumpkin pie all over again.
There seems to be no explanation for when Papilles is empty or packed — I've been there on a weekend night and shared the room with only a few tables, and on a Tuesday been lucky to squeeze myself into a banquette between tightly packed customers headily discussing the business of Hollywood. When the place is full and humming, the three folks on the floor will take a little while getting to you to ask for your order or clear the table or bring the bill. This really isn't a place I'd recommend if that type of thing bothers you greatly. It's a place for a relaxed and friendly meal, and it carries many of the pleasures associated with dining in someone's home. I suppose you're not tipping your friends 20 percent of anything, but the slowness never bothered me. Service is charming and intelligent when it arrives, and that's good enough for me in a place like this. I was just pleased to see them so busy.
Which is really the whole point. If, like me, you hear the same line all the time — "You have to try this place, it's totally underrated!" — I'm here to tell you that this time, for once, you should listen.
PAPILLES BISTRO | Three stars | 6221 Franklin Ave., Hollywood Hills | (323) 871-2026 | papillesla.com | Tue.-Fri. 6-9:30 p.m.; Sat. & Sun., 5:30-9:30 p.m. | prix fixe menu, $36 (dishes available à la carte as well) | Wine and beer | Limited lot parking