What can you do with a major in history? Many a parent -- and student -- has posed this plaintive question in the course of such a liberal-arts education. One answer, it would seem, is: Go to Los Angeles and open a restaurant. First, history major Suzanne Goin opened Lucques, and now Annie Miler, who graduated from Amherst College, summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, with a B.A. in history, has opened Clementine, a sunny bakery and takeout cafe in West Los Angeles.
Miler’s interest has always been food; she studied the history of food, and her thesis discussed the development of culinary and domestic science as an academic niche for women in the early 20th century. Miler‘s hands-on training is equally impressive: She completed both the cuisine and patisserie courses at Le Cordon Bleu in London. She has worked in the kitchen at Campanile (under Goin and Mark Peel), at La Brea Bakery (with Nancy Silverton and Kim Sklar) and at Spago (with Sherry Yard). She toured and worked in kitchens throughout the United States and Europe, then brought her knowledge home to us lucky Angelenos.
Clementine occupies the former site of Emil’s Swiss Pastry on Ensley Avenue, just across the street from the Century City shopping mall. (Hungry shoppers there should know that it is well worth dodging the traffic on Big Santa Monica Boulevard to eat at Clementine.) The interior is painted a cheerful pale orange with pale-green trim, colors extrapolated from a citrus tree -- clementines are, after all, California‘s sweetest mandarin orange. A freezer case holds frozen soups by the pint and quart; a glass counter displays the deli salads. Imported olives sit in crocks. Baked goods are displayed by the coffee counter. Food is ordered at the register and devoured in an adjoining dining area, a pretty room with wainscoting and a witty collection of framed food brochures and coupons and photographs from the ’30s and ‘40s.
Clementine features “homemade seasonal food” at pleasantly moderate prices. The short breakfast menu offers poached eggs, biscuits and an excellent brand of preserves, Edon Spoonables. The dark-toasted granola has whole roasted almonds and a compelling, mild sweetness thanks to a generous scattering of chewy dried fruit. The breakfast sandwich is made with a biscuit so flaky and buttery, the poached egg and shaved country ham seem only to gild it. I especially liked a pancetta and leek quiche, with its buttery crust, soft custard and frank flavors.
There is a brightness and cleanness and freshness to Miler’s cooking, and she sounds some interesting cultural notes: Her apricot bun is a soft mound of shiny, sweet yeast bread with a yolk-orange apricot compote center, a balance of sweetness and starch modeled on and improving upon the modest Midwestern kolache, a pastry that at first taste seems inestimably dull -- moist bread with a meager daub of jam -- but soon, incomprehensibly, is completely addictive. A cunningly small country-ham biscuit, a Southern breakfast standby, employs a similar concept: lots of breadiness, small slice of strong ham. In this case the ham is shaved and, regrettably, too genteel, too mild to relay the full effect; country ham should be borderline funky, and even a bit leathery, to contrast with the soft, crumbly biscuit. Still, I‘m thrilled to find these regional specialties under one roof.
Eight intelligently composed sandwiches dominate the lunch menu. The rare roast beef is profoundly rare, a thick layer of deep pink on rustic bread, with another layer of arugula and marinated onions, and a good hit of horseradish in the mustard. The ham and Gruyere cheese sandwich, on country white bread, is grilled in a grooved press, with silken balsamic-marinated onions adding a pleasant goosh and a wallop of flavor -- dunk it in the house’s resonant roasted-tomato soup. Pan bagnat translates as “bathed bread,” and this tuna sandwich is so bathed in dressing it‘s a juicy pleasure.
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Deli salads, as accompaniment to sandwiches or as meals in themselves, include winter vegetables (fennel, small turnips, strips of butternut squash) roasted till sweet, and a cavolo nero salad tossed with mixed grains (couscous, quinoa, wild rice). Deviled eggs are crowned with chives and julienned radish, which add a surprising heat and depth. Frozen soups, made without cream, are thick and satisfying -- although you might want to add a bit of salt to both the celery-root soup and the Moroccan carrot -- and they’re about the fastest meal you can prepare at home.
Clementine offers a variety of services appropriate to the neighborhood: Office workers can order box lunches or boardroom breakfasts; parents can order lunches, $5.50 and ready in 15 minutes, for their school-age children. Miler also offers special holiday to-go menus.
Any visit to Clementine, even if it‘s just to pick up a soup, is incomplete without a sweet. Every item is made on the premises. There’s good chocolate in the chocolate-chip cookies, good heft and salty-sweetness in Mrs. Miler‘s coconut-raisin cookies. The scones -- apricot-ginger and strawberry -- have a gratifyingly firm crumb, and the coconut cupcakes have the soft, moist crumb and depth of flavor only a made-from-scratch cake can achieve. But I yearn, still and forever, for that demure and dangerous apricot bun, which is designed for coffee (and coffee klatches) -- and Clementine’s Graffeo blends are excellent.
1751 Ensley Ave.; (310) 552-1080. No alcohol. Open Mon.--Fri. 7 a.m.--7 p.m., Sat. 8 a.m.--5 p.m. Parking on street and in rear lot. AE, CB, DC, MC, V.