In the new Culver City, where the creative arts are to the city’s job base what automobiles are to Detroit, Mediterranean-influenced restaurants multiply like limited-edition giclee prints, and there is probably not a garage or a warehouse downtown that has not been stripped down to its brick, fitted out with an ambitious wine list and populated with studio guys whose shoes cost more than used cars. Within a few blocks of the sidewalk where I was once mugged between halves of a double bill at the old Meralta, there are at least a dozen places to purchase prosciutto de Parma or a glass of Côtes du Rhône. The days when thrift shopping was the most compelling reason to visit the neighborhood are long gone.
The most fashionable few yards in downtown Culver City now are probably within the outdoor terrace at the proto-Italian restaurant Fraîche, a shaded, comfortable spot that mimics the ambiance of a Parisian sidewalk bistro, although the view is of the restored Culver Hotel instead of the Boulevard Montparnasse, nobody’s smoking and the thickets of herbs in the planters outside haven’t yet succumbed to traffic fumes. Fraîche is the fiefdom of Thierry Perez, a sommelier who has worked in so many formal restaurants in Los Angeles and New York that I once thought he was following me around the country, and chef Jason Travi, whose résumé includes Spago, Opaline and Bottle Rock next door.
Perez, a bluff Frenchman of classic maître d’ temperament who could probably sneer at your wine choice in any of nine different languages, is an overwhelming presence here — denying tables to walk-ins with a Gallic shrug, plumping for a new Chablis that he loves, imploring newcomers to taste the latest creation of bartender Albert Trummer, whose elaborate drink cart looks more like a portable alchemist’s laboratory than something that might produce anything so prosaic as a martini. (Trummer’s version of absinthe, an anise-scented brew concocted on the spot from the herb-steeped contents of half a dozen beakers, liquid dripped from an antique spigot, sputtering blue flame and a sugar cube, is probably the most spectacular alcoholic presentation in the universe.)
Fraîche is a restaurant of love and obsession, from Travi’s house-cured guanciale to the subtle smokiness of the rabbit tortelli with brown butter, the fresh tagliatelle tossed with crabmeat and zucchini to the supple house-made gravlax. If you have 50 bucks screaming to be released from your wallet, you could do worse than the meticulous plateau de fruits de mer, a huge, multitiered metal platter piled with shellfish — sweet Northwest oysters, clams on the half shell, a squid salad, a juicy bay scallop ceviche, half a chilled lobster, giant shrimp and Spanish-style marinated mussels. When you are in a carnivorous mood, the charcuterie plate is impeccable, a wooden plank of cured animal that may include thick chunks of veal head frozen in a parsleyed gelatin, slabs of the fat-enriched potted-duck spread rillettes, extra-aged Parma prosciutto and, if you’re lucky, slices of Travi’s house-made lardo, Tuscan-style pickled fatback, which has the herbaceous undertone of the unavailable real thing. Hand-chopped beef tartare is scented with a bacon-enriched sabayon, which is a trick that every chef should use instead of truffle oil.
Does the fish spend a minute or so too long on the stove? Usually, in the Italian manner seafood — including the lovely wild king salmon — is cooked all the way through. Are the meats too straightforward? Possibly, although the lamb spezzatino, a northern Italian stew, is tender as a lullaby, and the Kurobuta pork chop with violet mustard is swell.
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Travi comes to Fraîche straight from a stint at the adjacent wine bar Bottle Rock, and a few of the appetizers perhaps have the smack of the deli case about them. The farro salad may be made with farmers-market lima beans and good Tuscan pecorino, but the farro itself lacks the pop that the Etruscan grain has on its home turf. The caprese salad made with heirloom tomatoes and the cream-stuffed mozzarella called burrata is pleasant, but the cheese tends to be too cold and the plate is embellished with an unnecessary splash of medium-quality balsamic vinegar.
But Travi spent a term as the chef at La Terza, one of the better Italian restaurants in town, and the risottos and fresh pastas are good — more Californian than representing a particular region of Italy but including ravioli stuffed with a delicate purée of ricotta, English peas and mint; a wintry plate of wide pappardelle noodles in a sauce of shortribs and mushrooms; and a saucy risotto with tiny chanterelles and thyme. As far as I know, Travi is the only chef in town serving passatelli, an antique Romagna-style peasant dish of thick “noodles” made from a paste of bread crumbs, cheese and eggs, served in a roast-poultry broth. I’d seen the dish in the famous 1891 cookbook of Pellegrino Artusi but never on a restaurant menu. It is among the most soothing soups imaginable.
Miho Travi, Jason’s wife, is the dessert chef, and there is a small but appealing selection of seasonal, old-fashioned desserts available at Fraîche — a perfectly smooth chocolate pot au crème, perhaps; round Italian doughnuts called bomboloni filled with pastry cream and served with stewed plums; a pear tart; or a classic Paris-Brest, kind of a wheel-shaped eclair filled with praline cream. Me, I’m planning to take another crack at Mr. Trummer’s ‘absinthe.’
Fraîche, 9411 Culver Blvd., Culver City, (310) 839-6800 or fraicherestaurantla.com. Lunch Mon.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m., dinner daily 5:30–10:30 p.m. AE, MC, V. Full bar. Dinner for two, food only, $40–$70, more with fruits de mer. Recommended dishes: plateau de fruits de mer, beef tartare, ravioli with English peas and mint, passatelli in brodo, lamb spezzatino.