Bistro K is almost too civilized on a busy Thursday night — a tiny, candlelit dining room with Ray Charles on the stereo, fresh flowers on linen tablecloths, couples bent over glasses of Beaujolais. Dinner-party groups of well-fed Pasadenans, the ones who haven’t quite scraped the Kerry/Edwards stickers off the bumpers of their Volvos, debate whether to have the apple tart or the sour-cherry clafouti for dessert. Sharp knives dissect partridge, wild hare and other buckshot-speckled delights rarely encountered outside of Dickens novels. Sea salt is sprinkled into a crock of pot au feu. A young woman dismantles a complex parfait of smoked eel, green apples and duck liver. I taste a grand-cru Alsatian riesling that has lain hidden in my basement for the past 15 years. I am beginning to like Bistro K. I am beginning to like it a lot.
Bistro K, to put it plainly, is a restaurant out of a daydream, with a kitchen that may rank among the few dozen best in town, run by a gifted and accomplished French chef, with a BYOB wine policy and no corkage charge (you must bring your own wine); a place where a fine, intimate dinner costs rather less than a quick meal of cheeseburgers and drinks at Houston’s. Mineral water is available, but the delicious filtered water infused with lemons and cucumbers is free, and pushed by some of the waiters as if they were selling it on commission.
The menu is missing bistro clichés like steak frites or roast chicken, but is well stocked with the game and innards elsewhere unavailable in Los Angeles, oddities like the braised snips of veal tendon garnishing the medallions of rare venison, and such seasonally appropriate things as oeufs en meurette, a wintry harvest dish of eggs poached in a red-wine reduction with meaty slivers of bacon. Plus, there will be ant eggs in spring! A warm salad of duck gizzards sautéed with cèpes, chanterelle mushrooms and hot chiles, one of the most satisfying appetizers I have ever eaten in Los Angeles, costs only $7; a bowl of perfect mussels steamed with lime and curried coconut milk less than eight; an impeccable marquise au chocolat less than six.
In his American Fried, upon seeing a demonstration of what must have been the very first computerized restaurant finder 35 years ago, Calvin Trillin asked the machine’s owner to find a three-star French restaurant with moderate prices and a headwaiter who believes that accepting bribes is unethical. The computer was unsuccessful, as Trillin suspected it would be: “If [the programmer] found such a place, he would know better than to say anything about it to a machine.”
Bistro K may be such a place.
The chef/owner, Laurent Quenioux, was famous as the chef of the Seventh Street Bistro downtown in the ’80s — I have never forgotten his eel mousse with cucumber or his pumpkin soup with popcorn. His style was rooted in the clean flavors and unusual juxtapositions of classic nouvelle cuisine, but even then he seemed to be obsessed with the play of textures: the rubbery pop of mustard seeds against the juiciness of roast meat, the liquid crunch of undercooked zucchini against the softness of poached fish. Then he dropped out of sight at the end of the ’80s boom, a regular subject of the restaurant gossip columns for a while, until he joined the likes of Gordon Naccarato and the late Billy Pflug, kitchen geniuses thwarted by the sterner restaurant climate of the ’90s.
But in this tiny dining room, a former funeral parlor attached to a small playhouse, Quenioux seems to thrive, drawing customers with his artichoke-heart confit with goat cheese and basil; violet-flavored foie gras terrine; and tiny, Provençal-scented pizzas topped with roasted garlic, dried tomatoes and a dozen poached snails, black and glistening and full of mellow, earthy flavor, unmasked by melted butter. Chunks of black cod are fried in a crisp coat of batter and laid atop a sort of goulash of chiles and blood sausage that tastes like first-rate Mexican chorizo. (Quenioux often combines influences from the American Southwest and from southwest France.) The cassoulet of duck hearts, tender nuggets of meat braised with turnips and slippery bits of poached duck’s tongue, served in a cardamom-scented mushroom sauce on a sort of footed cake plate, is worthy of a multistarred Michelin laureate.
And there are few chefs in Los Angeles who have Quenioux’s touch with game: a soft, gloriously stinky Scottish hare stewed in something approximating the traditional foie gras-inflected blood; the most delicate roast squab with eggplant; a wonderful, substantive braised boar shank; a whole-roasted red-leg partridge with the funky, steroidal, locker-room smack of the best shot game.
What are tamales and quesadillas doing on a plate with the very French hare? It is hard to know, but they at least do the animal no harm.?
Bistro K, 1000 S. Fremont Ave., South Pasadena, (626) 799-5052, www.lqmanagementservices.com. Wed.–Sat., 5–9 p.m. AE, MC, V. Free corkage. Lot parking. Dinner for two, food only, $60-$80. Recommended dishes: cassoulet of duck hearts and tongues with turnips; civet of wild boar; pot au feu.