Alain Giraud may be one of the least-known great chefs in America. He was overshadowed by Michel Richard during his seven-year term as chef-de-cuisine at Citrus, and his brilliant turn at Lavande, a grand, Provençal-style restaurant above the beach in Santa Monica, was outshouted by the dozen Asian fusion restaurants that opened at the same time. His season as opening chef at Bastide was just long-lived enough for the restaurant to be feted as one of the country’s best. And although rumors of a Giraud brasserie had been floating around for years, and a space in the Deco 1926 Clock Tower in Santa Monica was reportedly secured, there were years when it was easier to run into Giraud in Manhattan than in Los Angeles.
But finally, Anisette Brasserie is open and it is well worth the wait, a soaring dining room, taller than it is wide, carved out of a bank branch and a frozen-yogurt store just a few months ago. Like Balthazar in New York, the brand-new Anisette has a look of permanence about it, with a battered zinc bar, pressed-tin ceiling, faded paint and leatherette booths, oddly narrow, like an awkward space in a distant arrondissement that has thrived since the Belle Époque in spite of the fact that it was originally designed as a tannery or a smelting shed. A glass of Sancerre, a slab of buttered bread, a half-dozen oysters in ice in a battered tin tray — Paris native Giraud is at home.
Is there decent onion soup gratinée? Of course. Rare steak-frites with flesh the color of ripe raspberries? It goes without saying. One kind of towering plateaux devoted to shellfish and another to terrines, cured meats and perfectly ripened cheeses? Sure. There is intense use of seasonal produce from the Wednesday farmers’ market around the corner: Scallops were garnished with the tiniest fresh favas; spring vegetables were roasted in parchment paper; and an unadorned bowl of chilled ripe cherries was the best dessert imaginable. There is a slate of daily specials — Wednesday saw the first duck à l’orange I can remember finishing in years — and a straightforward version of Provençal daube, braised beef that collapses at the touch of a fork.
The restaurant is new, the demand for seats is high, and the service continues from breakfast through late dinner. It may take a little time for the service to settle down. But to paraphrase something Calvin Trillin wrote a few years ago in Gourmet, Anisette isn’t serving a modern interpretation of French cooking, a chef’s fantasy of French cooking, or riffs on the theme of French cooking — it’s French cooking as designed by an amazingly skilled French chef. And we’re lucky that it is in Los Angeles. 225 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 395-3200 or www.anisettebrasserie.com.