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The Last Time I Saw Paris

A friend and I are sitting on the patio of Le Petit Zinc. We are trying to talk to each other, but there is a distraction: At the table next to us, a couple in their late 40s, if not their early 50s, are passionately making out. ”Where do they think they are?“ whispers my friend. ”Paris?“

Set in an unprepossessing block of Wilshire Boulevard just west of Barrington Avenue in West Los Angeles, Le Petit Zinc’s classy red awning, cheerful yellow facade and pretty patio exert a definite romantic allure. Inside, an art nouveau--style mural presides over the bar. As with its forebears, the Petit Bistros (one on La Cienega, one in the Valley), the sum of Le Petit Zinc‘s carefully chosen decorative details -- dark wood contrasting with deep-hued walls of mustard yellow and sage green, hung with impressively large antique French posters -- convincingly evokes the ambiance of an urbane, perfected Parisian bistro. (Zinc, the pewter finish that tops off so many Parisian bars, was at one time a popular metonym for bar.)

Although Le Petit Zinc has been open only since March, the restaurant ranks -- with Pastis, Mimosa, Bouchon and Figaro -- among the handsomest and most atmospheric of L.A.’s French bistros. Yet for all its airs and sophisticated good looks, the restaurant‘s other virtues appear only in fits and starts. On my first visit, two friends and I waited a long time to be greeted at the door, then, as we wandered deeper into the restaurant, were ignored for another five minutes until someone said, with evident surprise, ”Oh, are you here to eat?“

But the food and atmosphere -- that night, anyway -- eclipsed the dubious welcome. A decent onion soup sealed with melted Gruyere; steamed moules; and an endive salad with bay shrimp and a bold dash of mustard in the dressing made for a promising start. I had tender, tasty leg of lamb with roasted potatoes and haricots verts . . . simple and appealing. The entrecote with pommes frites was delicious, a grilled juicy sirloin with pepper sauce and a huge stack of thin, good French fries: a bargain at $13.95. That night’s fish fancier had only praise for his slab of moist grilled opah with mango garnish. The desserts, however, were just average, although an underwhelming pot de chocolat and a somewhat soggy apple tarte tatin barely managed to dampen our overall enthusiasm: We‘d had a nice time and been well fed, and the price tag was reasonable.

Like a person whose first date has been a success, I eagerly looked forward to the next one -- only to end up wondering at my own judgment. On a bustling Sunday night, service was in scant supply, and the food, as my companion so succinctly noted, earned only a C-minus. The eggplant tart was an unappetizing pile of too-bitter, overcooked eggplant with spinach on a square of puff pastry too tough to cut with a knife . . . an hour too long in the microwave, perhaps? The waiter took the whole thing away without comment, as if it were perfectly natural for someone not to eat this dish. My companion had better luck with his starter, a caprese salad, but was then sucker-punched by his entree, an unappealingly fishy branzino special. (This reminded me why I’d stopped going to Le Petit Bistro years ago: The kitchen, I felt, did not share my passion for freshness.) At least my grilled veal sausages were merely bland and dry. Again, desserts were uninspired: rubbery crepe suzettes, an unremarkable bread pudding.

But another visit -- this time at lunch -- was downright delightful, starting with the warm, gracious greeting. This was a midweek lunch. The room was full of local office workers and lunching ladies (aren‘t they a gas?), and everything ran like clockwork. This winter, I’ll be back for that slow-cooked caramelized lamb shank on couscous, and in the hot weeks to come, I‘ll be thinking of the cold poached salmon -- although the accompanying heirloom tomatoes looked and tasted as though they had been sliced the day before. (Again, the kitchen could raise its standards for freshness.)

And we finally found the dessert to order: a dramatic peach Melba served in a huge stemmed goblet. Who knew ice cream, fresh peaches, whipped cream and raspberry sauce could be so incroyable.

11829 Wilshire Blvd., West L.A.; (310) 575-3777. Entrees $8.95--$20. Open weekdays for lunch, daily for dinner. Full bar in early October. Valet parking. AE, MC, V. Recommended dishes: entrecote with pommes frites, lamb shank, peach Melba.