The Reluctant Café
I have just returned from Paris and am suffering from a particular kind of withdrawal. I had grown quite fond — perhaps overly so — of the commonplace French sandwich, a skinny baguette sliced lengthwise and inlaid with a few slices of jambon (ham) and Gruyère. No mustard, no mayo. Just excellent, crusty, not-too-bready bread, salty ham, thin slices of a semihard cheese with a little clout. Around 15 inches long, wrapped in cellophane, these sandwiches are ubiquitous in the city, costing anywhere from 15 to 20 francs, between $2 and $3. I would walk along eating one, stash it in my backpack while I went into shops or museums, then rediscover it with pleasure just as peckishness again hit. I love those simple sandwiches; tasty, long-lasting, perfectly proportioned. Quintessentially satisfying.
To ease the withdrawal, I’ve taken to driving to an unlikely part of the city — the corner of First Street and Beverly Boulevard (two otherwise parallel streets that meet just east of Virgil Avenue) — to the small gourmet-specialty-sandwich store Picholine. The mere sight of red tins of Hediard biscuits in the window eases my jet lag. Picholine, named for a green olive, is owned by Patrick Milo, former manager of the Silver Lake gourmet-specialty-sandwich store and coffee bar Say Cheese. Last year, Patrick found the unusual but promising storefront on First Street, and opened his own establishment, at once similar to Say Cheese, and different. Patrick was largely responsible for the café side of Say Cheese, and he was determined to run things differently at Picholine.
For starters, Picholine has just three tables, one inside and two out on the sidewalk. Most customers must take their sandwiches and salads elsewhere to eat them. There is also no coffee — neither espresso drinks nor plain old American machine-dripped joe. Coffee requires a variety of milks; espresso drinks are time-consuming, labor-intensive and noisy. Patrick decided to forget coffee. If you’ve come for a sandwich or salad, there’s tap water, bottled waters or that pricey French lemonade.
This reluctance to cater fully to a café clientele has not deterred a loyal lunch-time following — or me. Picholine, you see, has a ham-and-cheese baguette (No. 9 on the menu, $7). This is not the slim, portable ham-and-cheese of my recent travels; rather, it’s an outsize American take on the simple classic, the bread a length of crusty La Brea Bakery baguette. The filling, by French standards, is generous, even lavish, with a hefty portion of pale, mild Madrange ham and a soft, not fully ripe Brie. And like the other eight sandwiches on Picholine’s sandwich menu, No. 9 comes with a choice of mesclun or pasta salad, on a bright Fiestaware plate, or in a to-go box too big for most any purse. Still, No. 9, on its own terms, is pretty darn good, especially with that baby-green salad dressed in a mustardy vinaigrette.
When not in a petulant fit of Parisian nostalgia, I might have any one of the other eight Picholine sandwiches, although the turkey with roasted tomato and a smoky, slow-burning chipotle mayonnaise keeps asserting its superiority. For vegetarians, there is a grilled eggplant with roasted tomato and melted Port Salut cheese on a big rustic La Brea Bakery roll.
There are also seven salads, all mesclun-based and topped with various cold cuts. The house chef salad with prosciutto, Beaufort cheese, tomatoes and hard-boiled egg is my choice; but there’s also a good smoked-salmon salad with capers, and a terrific house tuna salad with cucumber and avocado.
Picholine also makes dinner to go. Each night there are two choices of simple French food. Orders are phoned or faxed in during the day, then picked up after 6. Some entrées are better than others: Poached salmon with aoli and string beans is excellent; a lean meat loaf tastes, oddly, of too much red wine. Beef bourguignon, lamb shanks and coq au vin are deservedly popular classics.
It’s fun to supplement dinner with items off the shelves: a Scottish shortbread cookie, or a chocolate sauce from Fran’s, or the unusual Out of the Flower sorbets, or some Michel Cluizel truffles and bonbons. Compose your own cheese plate from Picholine’s well-stocked imported-cheese counter: an herbed aged chèvre, say, and the triple-cream San Andre.
And for the holidays, Picholine’s grocery shelves are rife with edible stocking stuffers: teas and beautiful jams, infused oils, aged vinegars, olive oils.
3360 W. First St.; (213) 252-8722, fax (213) 252-8723. Open Tues.–Sat. for lunch, Tues.–Fri. for dinner takeout. Lunch $7, dinner entrées $10.99–$13.99. No alcohol. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. Parking on street. Recommended dishes: roasted-turkey sandwich; Madrange ham-and-Brie sandwich; chef salad; poached salmon with aoli and string beans.
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