There may be nothing quite as satisfying on a quiet Wednesday afternoon as a late lunch at Anisette brasserie, the chard and nectarines from a morning at the farmers market tucked safely in the trunk of your car, your breakfast caffeine just starting to wear off, a glass of steely, cold Savoie wine in front of you and a plate of oysters just being set down on the tiny table. The glamorous “A” table in the corner, the sunny, spacious one you imagine being reserved for studio heads and the mayor, is occupied by a couple of growers from the Wednesday market, and a few of the customers, bulging cloth shopping bags stowed beside them on the leather banquettes, gawk at them as if they actually were movie stars. Waiters descend the long staircase from the balcony kitchen with enormous trays, cheeseburgers and composed salads mostly, but also superheated crocks of onion soup gratinée, plates of hand-chopped steak tartare and rare steak-frites with flesh the color of ripe raspberries. Even in abstemious Santa Monica, half the restaurant is drinking wine with lunch.
You suck an oyster from its shell, a tiny, salty Luna from an inlet north of San Diego, you sip the briny juices, and you chase it with the cold white wine. Later there will be a salad of goat cheese and beets, a plate of garlicky sausage nestled onto a plate of stewed pole beans, and a bowl of chocolate mousse, but at the moment, it is hard to imagine wanting anything more.
Anisette is a movie set of a brasserie, a double-height dining room carved out of the ground floor of the old Clock Tower Building in downtown Santa Monica, absinthe bottles rising to heaven behind the zinc bar, upper walls tinted nicotine yellow, leather booths as glossy as $8,000 club chairs. Like Balthazar in Manhattan (or Balzar in Paris), Anisette looks as if it has always been here, all worn tile floors, dented tin ceilings, imperfect mirrors — like an awkwardly narrow space in a distant arrondissement that has thrived since the Belle Epoque in spite of the fact that it was originally designed as a tannery or a smelting shed — or, in this case, as a bank.
The restaurant is the creation of Mike Garrett and Tommy Stoilkovich, who are perhaps better known as the proprietors of nightclub/restaurants like Falcon and Voda, and of Alain Giraud, a shaggy, bearish Frenchman who would probably look like a chef even if he were wearing a hockey jersey. Giraud’s cooking may be better-known than his biography, and despite years in three-star Paris restaurants and two decades running some of the best French kitchens in Los Angeles, he has never quite achieved a notoriety commensurate with his skill. He was overshadowed by Michel Richard during his seven-year term as chef de cuisine at Citrus, which coincided with that restaurant’s best years, and his turn at Lavande, a Provençal-style hotel restaurant overlooking Santa Monica Bay, was regarded as oddly old-fashioned at a time when local chefs were expected to flavor their daubes with star anise and fresh ginger. He lasted as the opening chef at Bastide just long enough to inspire awe in the nation’s food writers. He is one of the few chefs in town at the moment experienced enough to run a huge formal kitchen, imaginative enough to work meaningful changes on haute cuisine.
But at Anisette, Giraud isn’t presenting a modern interpretation of French cooking, a chef’s fantasy of French cooking, or riffs on the theme of French cooking — the brasserie does regular French cooking as designed by an amazingly skilled French chef, made with superb California produce and served by Santa Monica waiters and waitresses who occasionally seem practiced at French diffidence. The rotating list of daily specials includes the old-fashioned standards lobster Thermidor and duck à l’orange, done superbly well. Desserts are generally things like floating island, chocolate mousse and profiteroles. One goes to Anisette not to experience the new and revolutionary, one goes to be fed.
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There are the usual towering plateaux devoted to fresh shellfish from the icy seafood bar that dominates the restaurant’s entrance, and another tiered platter laden instead with terrines, charcuterie and ripened cheese. The liver pâté is superb, almost a smooth, melting meat butter capped with a winey gelée and served in little mason jars. The onion soup is everything you might hope it would be, deep and sweet, annealed into its crock with a thick layer of cheese. At lunchtime, you can have croque monsieurs and madames, a brasserie burger with gooey Brie and chips of toasted pancetta on a soft brioche, or soups that might include a green-zebra tomato gazpacho, an elegant English pea velouté, or a proper, coarsely pureed Provençal fish soup served with thin toasts, peppery rouille and a small dish of grated cheese. Sweetbreads are finished with the kind of densely delicious demiglace you probably haven’t seen in years. When the weather gets cold, Giraud’s straightforward version of Provençal daube, braised beef that collapses at the touch of a fork, will probably appear again, probably made with beef cheeks, his secret ingredient.
Is the duck confit dry? It can be. Steaks can be gamy and less than tender in the brasserie tradition, and the rotisserie chicken, although always crisp-skinned, can be juicy and alive one meal and a little dry the next.
But the restaurant is almost a showcase for the farmers market, sea scallops garnished with the tiniest fresh favas in late spring, seared char with perfect ratatouille in late summer; composed salads featuring asparagus when appropriate, and watermelon, fresh mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes later in the summer. A few weeks ago, Giraud charged through the front door with a basketful of treasures that he had picked up at that morning’s market, and he stopped by the table to show off the loot — Gaviota strawberries from Harry’s Berries, crenelated old-breed zucchini and a basket of mulberries from Weiser Farms, fresh shell beans from McGrath, and a few bunches of sun-warmed summer savory that would make the beans sing. I recognized the produce instantly. An almost identical assortment was sitting in the trunk of my car.
Anisette, 225 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 395-3200 or anisette brasserie.com. Mon.-Thurs., 7:30 a.m.-mid.; Fri., 7:30 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sat., 8 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sun., 8 a.m.-mid. Full bar. Nearby city-lot parking on Second St. free for two hours. AMEX, MC, V. Recommended dishes: onion soup, steak tartare, sweetbreads, char, duck à l‘orange, profiteroles.