Bretons come to the beach [Restaurant review]
As word gets out about Les P’tits Bretons, the only Breton restaurant south of San Francisco, expect to hear more French than English at the tables.
It makes sense that the most popular variant of French cuisine in California is from the Mediterranean coast of Provence. The climate there is similar to ours so the same produce is readily available, and the use of olive oil and robust seasonings fits our concept of healthy dining better than richer and more delicately seasoned Parisian items.
French restaurants from both traditions have been established in the South Bay for decades, but they have recently been joined by a representative of an entirely different region. At first glance it’s an odd fit with our area. Brittany is the coolest and rainiest area of France, and is famous for simple, hearty seafood dishes, buckwheat crepes with mild fillings, and flaky, buttery baked goods.
Parisian restaurateurs Olivier Jouet and Djahida Rigi opened this unlikely restaurant in an even unlikelier spot — the building at the corner of Marine and Highland avenues, which has been the graveyard for several casual cafes. They and their decorator have executed a spectacular transformation of the oddly configured space that has three separate levels and a patio, each with just a few tables. If this was all on one floor you would see it as a fairly large restaurant, but the cozy French countryside décor makes it seem like each space is a separate, intimate cafe.
The design was a smart move, and an even smarter one was bringing in Chef Chuck Kallal, a veteran of LA powerhouses, including Rustic Canyon, Ludobites, and Petit Trois. Kallal uses Breton ideas about simplicity and herbal flavors as a guideline rather than a straitjacket and creates items with remarkable depth of flavor.
We started a recent meal with a Brittany-style white bean hummus and a bowl of cauliflower soup with vadouvan, a French seasoning based on curry powder. (If curry powder sounds like an odd ingredient here, consider that France had colonies in India as early as 1668 and as late as 1954, so there was plenty of time for cultural exchange.) Vadouvan adds dried shallots and garlic to the Indian masala seasoning mix to create a gentle but complex herbal flavor that goes marvelously with pureed cauliflower in a mild chicken stock.
The white bean hummus also isn’t quite as much of a multicultural stretch as it might seem, since traditional hummus is made with garbanzos rather than the white beans that are a popular ingredient all over France. Chef Kallal sprouts his white beans so that the vegetable sugars are intensified, which makes this mix of bean puree with lemon juice, mild garlic, and herbs delightful. It’s probably not something you’d find at some seaside café in St. Malo, but locals would recognize the flavors if not the execution.
Having wine with dinner fits any French meal, but Brittany is noted for sparkling ciders so we had a Dan Armor “Cuvee Speciale” brut as one of our beverages. This wasn’t as dry as I expected from something labeled brut and there was apple tartness balanced with sugar – if you’re used to sweet and insipid mass market ciders it might be a revelation. We also had a white Bordeaux and Pouilly Fume from their short by-the-glass list and slightly preferred the Fume with our starters.
We continued with a salad that included tomato, peach slices, burrata cheese, almonds, greens, and that most French of ingredients, macadamia nuts. Yes, those are Hawaiian, but as I mention Chef Kallal uses Breton cuisine as a starting point. Brittany is about as far north as you can get a good peach crop and putting ripe tomatoes and firm peaches together was a superb idea. It reminds you that both are fruit, and the use of both almonds and macadamias adds two shadings to the nutty elements. I assume this salad won’t be on the menu long because peach season is coming to a close, but if it is available, get it.
For main courses we selected a Bolognese galette, duck breast with roasted figs, and stone fruit mostarda, and sea bass over white beans with green beans and beets. The sea bass was simply roasted and topped with a rich tarragon and wine cream sauce, a combination that is used for all kinds of seafood in Brittany. It’s a unfashionably rich compared to Provencal sauces thanks to the use of butter and cream, but a taste reminds you why classical French cooking earned such respect in the first place. Pairing the fish with green beans almandine and fresh steamed beets made a pretty plate with a fine balance of flavors, simple and elegant at the same time.
The duck had a different balance of richness with natural flavors thanks to the roasted black figs, and a pear and stonefruit salad with whole grain mustard judiciously used. Duck is often paired with cherry or raspberry sauce for tartness to balance the heaviness of the meat, but the sweet figs and sweet and spicy fruit compote made altogether more interesting companions. The fruit with mustard is Chef Kallal’s take on an Italian tradition called a mostarda that is usually more sweet and syrupy. I much prefer his restrained version that lets the natural flavors to shine. We had spent four bucks extra to get what the chef described as a stinky blue cheese sauce to accompany the duck. Though it wasn’t essential to the duck it was delicious and we ate every bit of it with our bread as a side dish.
The person who ordered the bolognese galette was puzzled by what arrived because he didn’t expect the authentic version of this Italian sauce. Bologna is one of Italy’s centers for cattle, and besides the famous sausage from that region they developed a sauce in which finely chopped beef is slow cooked for a full day with milk, minced vegetables, and a small amount of tomato. It’s a paste of meat and vegetables with very mild flavor and almost completely unlike the tomato-based red ragu that is usually served at Italian restaurants here. What my companion received was a crisp buckwheat crepe with a fried egg in the middle and a thin layer of Italian Bolognese around it. Once he got over the fact that it was nothing like what he expected, he enjoyed it, though he said he’d probably order something else next time because he likes more robust flavors.
As we were unfamiliar with the wines by the glass we asked for suggestions from the owner, who suggested a La Bretonnière Bordeaux and a La Rose Sarron Graves. He also suggested glasses of muscadet dessert wine to match the crepe suzette that we had for dessert. This is an item with a link to the South Bay. Its inventor Henri Charpentier owned a restaurant in Redondo Beach, across from city hall, where it was served daily from 1946 until his death in 1961. The flaming brandy sauce caramelizing the sugars on a crepe still tastes just as good as ever, and we raised our glasses to salute Charpentier’s memory.
Dinner for three with five glasses of wine ran $184, which is entirely reasonable for cooking of this caliber. This is the only Breton restaurant south of San Francisco and I predict that once the word gets around in the expatriate community you’re going to hear more French than English at the tables. It won’t all be French, because I expect that the savvy locals will fill the place, and I will be there too as often as my budget allows.
Les P’tits Bretons is at 2201 Highland in Manhattan Beach. Open daily except Monday 7:30 a.m. – 9:30 p.m., small lot or street parking. Wine and beer served, corkage $20, patio dining. Menu at lesptitsbretons.com, phone 424-350-7890. B
by Richard Foss