Sunday, August 23, 2009

French Birthday Brunching

La Frite Café, Sherman Oaks.
15013 Ventura Blvd. Sherman Oaks, Ca 91403'

The street is crowded by restaurants and shops, lined up in the traditional California way, like in the Arts Colony in Pomona, or up in San Francisco. A very grand display, with a Buffalo Exchange clothing store a few blocks down the street from the older, and the more established restaurants and shops near La Frite Café. What should I expect going to a place called ‘the fry’? Some classic, basic and essential French food in the part of Sherman Oaks I had never seen.

To celebrate my brother’s 29th birthday the criteria was a restaurant that served Sunday brunch and La Frite has a $21.95 prix fixe menu all ready for us. I started with coffee and water, and by the time the basket of assorted fresh croissants came to our table, I was ready for some fresh orange juice. Between the four of us, we ate three of the four appetizers. I had the Soupe du Jour--fresh asparagus, cream and chicken stock with chives and crème fraîche. My brother ate a Chilled Half Cantaloupe Filled with Strawberries in Port Wine and Fresh Mint. I tried a sliver of cantaloupe. I had never heard of the dish, but it immediately registered as something very simple and unadulterated, four flavors working together, simply. My father and my brother’s girlfriend each had the Brunch Antipasto, which was a sprawl of smoked salmon, decorative spoon-lumps of cream cheese, hard-boiled eggs with double yolks, some sliced red onion, a pile of crème fraîche topped with some black caviar, and served with white toast points.

By the time my Eggs Benedict came to the table, I was near full. Two extra large eggs, very artfully poached, placed on top of two halves of an English muffin with a slice of Canadian Bacon, and covered in a rich Hollandaise sauce. (I have made Hollandaise sauce once, and unfortunately i did just so I could make it. It sat around in my fridge until it went bad. Oh well!) It came with moist baked breakfast potatoes (with tomatoes and onions in the mix—great!) and a side of creamed spinach. Poor spinach. I should have said no, and yes to some fresh fruit instead. Seemed too rich. I was bursting. My brother’s girlfriend got the Sauteed Fresh Rainbow Trout ‘Grenobloise.’ (Which also came with sides of potatoes and creamed spinach!) A grenobloise sauce, for the city in southeastern France, is made of browned butter, capers, parsley, lemon, and is also served with sole.

(Grenoble is right next to a very beautiful strip of the Alps, close to the German and Italian borders, making for some delicious cross-cultural culinary dishes landing on restaurant dinner plates. During my visit to France in 2002, we passed through Grenoble on our way back north to Paris from Avignon. We ate at an awfully bland Tex-Mex restaurant, run by a Frenchman who had studied at Cal Tech here in Pasadena, CA. The world shrank so small that day!)

My brother had the French Toast with Mixed Berries and Maple Syrup. How could it not even be called Pain Perdu? This bothered me. While having the menu in English is clearly a marketing choice, the menu was very clearly suffering from the American syndrome, because the portions were huge! La Frite Café has been cooking away for the past 25+ years, and the modest portions that characterize French cuisine was thrown out the window a long time ago. The size of the portions is supposed to counterbalance all of the butter! So our bellies may have suffered in being stretched to their limits, but our tears were tears made of sweet cream and champagne. The men were lauding their recent exercise and diet feats, and that today was their day off from counting calories.
Our waiter Terry caught wind that it was my brother’s birthday. Along with the Chocolate Banana Caramel Crepe with La Frite homemade Vanilla Ice Cream and Caramelized Walnuts, the waiter brought a sliced of Warm Chocolate-Raisin Bread Pudding with Caramel Cream Sauce, and small custard cup of whipped cream with a lit candle in it. Everyone couldn’t get enough of the Banana Crepe, which arrived in an oven-hot casserole dish, but I took a bite, and that was it. Sometimes eating a few too many walnuts doesn’t bode well. I’m realizing I don’t much like the taste. We all couldn’t believe we piled away everything, and I was still sipping coffee as the check came. I took the potatoes and creamed spinach home, which will hopefully make for an exciting egg breakfast tomorrow.

I’d be interested to return to La Frite again to try some of the dessert crepes, the Onion Soup, Ratatouille, Baked Brie with Marinara, Chicken Cordon Bleu, or the various “Chopped Steak and Frites” selections, which may deceive, but you can’t hide the fact that you’re going to be served a hamburger.

Just think twice about getting the brunch. Make sure you’re very, very hungry, and that your stomach is in the mood for a digest-a-thon.

The best part of French Cuisine is the manner of its consumption, the time between courses longer than the American custom, leaving air for discussion and enjoyment. On that note, the service was excellent. It seemed every other minute I was getting a refill of the one-inch vacancy in my coffee and water glass. The delivery of the dishes was well-timed for digestion’s sake, and for conversation to flourish. The clientele at La Frite was various, and the outdoor patio seating seemed very inviting, the manager popping about asking us about our food. While the entire menu isn’t strictly French, it's an ideal match for me. It's got paper placemats, and you can listen to Contemporary Alt Rock while you eat. Délicieux!

next post...le film Julie and Julia!

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