Compagnon Bistro: Classic cuisine in style

Thomas and Loni Compagnon with chef Matthew Thompson. Photos by Tony LaBruno (TonyLaBruno.com)

Thomas and Loni Compagnon oversee a French bistro that is both stylish and casual

When I talk with newcomers to the Peninsula about San Pedro, I find many have impressions of the city based almost exclusively on the Gaffey corridor of chain stores, fast food joints, and little of cultural interest. Most know that there’s an old downtown area but are hard-pressed to name any destination there except for the Warner Grand and Grand Annex, which they may not have visited but are fairly sure they should.

If they’ve thought about dining there it’s probably at one of the Mexican or Italian places, of which there are many. But the city also boasts a rarity: a French bistro that is classic both in style and cuisine. They opened as La Buvette in early 2019, and changed the name to Compagnon Bistro the following year. They had to do that because Buvette was too similar to another establishment, but it was actually a good move, because this eatery is the personal expression of owners Thomas and Loni Compagnon. The couple seems to visit every table, recommending dishes, explaining wines, and generally keeping an eye on how everything is running.

The kitchen is in the capable hands of Chef Matthew Thompson, who executes a menu that has changed little since the place opened. That said, there have been subtle changes in style, as well as specials that allow him to stretch his creative muscles.

The interior of Compagnon Bistro evokes the style of a century ago.

The interior of the restaurant is decorated in the bistro style that mixes rustic touches like wine barrels and an antique meat slicer with an art glass chandelier and a pretty mural of a Mediterranean seascape. It’s as comfortable as a tastefully decorated living room, both stylish and casual. The sound level is moderate, and conversations flow over music that sets a mood but doesn’t interrupt it. I visited with friends who recently moved from the bay area, where they had their own favorite hangouts, and they remarked on how comfortable and welcoming the place was.

We started with a beet salad, pork pate, tomato and mustard tart, and raclette, the melted cheese dish of the French alps. I first tried raclette at a famed inn called La Chevrette in a mountain valley near Geneva. They brought a portable heater to my table and aimed it at a huge wheel of cheese. Those who know what they’re doing turn the heater off some time before they are done, because the cheese will keep melting onto the plate where you scoop it up with bread, but we were unfamiliar with the custom and ended up with a small lake of cheese. We ate much more of that rich, slightly funky cheese than we had planned, and while it was delicious, we had less appetite for the rest of the meal. Compagnon Bistro is not that authentic when it comes to the serving method, which is fine with me, because the amount of molten cheese that arrived in a small crock was quite sufficient. It was as delicious and wholesome as any peasant feast can be.

The beet salad and the tomato tart were both items I had tried when the restaurant had first opened, and both were slightly changed. In the early days this was made with strawberries, and whether it’s because they’re now out of season or some other reason, the current version has chopped candied walnuts and arugula along with two kinds of beets in an herbed vinaigrette. Thomas suggested pairing this with a Sancerre from their extensive by-the-glass list, and it was a perfect choice. Beet salads can be hard to pair because few wines work with the sweetness of the vegetable and tartness of vinegar, but this nailed it.

Thomas knows quite a bit about wine, having been the sommelier at the Trump resort among other places. His suggestion of a “Cuvee des Geux” with the raclette and a French Chardonnay with the tomato tart was also insightful. That tart, too, was made slightly differently, with a softer crust that had a buttery, wheaty flavor that paired well with the cheese, tomato, and mustard. The pate is one of the only things they don’t make in-house, but they have a quality supplier and this one completed the flavors among our appetizers.

We could have very easily made a meal from just ordering seconds, but the charms of the entree menu awaited. We selected ratatouille, leg of Muscovy duck, a plate of mussels in wine sauce, and a daily special of swordfish over root vegetables in a herb butter and vegetable stock. As much as we enjoyed all of these, the swordfish was the favorite of the day. The carrots and turnips had been cooked to the point where they were softened but still retained their character, and the sweetness with the garlicky stock was a perfect foil with the big piece of simply grilled fish. Thomas recommended this with a “Bruit des Glacons” white. One of my dining companions exclaimed the combination was like summer in your mouth. I hope they consider making the swordfish a regular menu item, because I’ll come back and order this combination just to experience it again.

The mussels with frites at Compagnon Bistro are a classic dish perfectly made.

The other mains were no slouch either, the ratatouille included spinach, which isn’t a typical ingredient, and was served over creamy polenta and enlivened by a ring of pesto. Whether this is how they make it in Thomas’s region of Southern France or it’s a house variant, it works wonderfully. The Côtes du Rhône is from the same area where ratatouille is native, and goes with the French default of pairing food and wine from the same region. The mussels were straightforward in a white wine cream sauce with herbs, and what sets them apart is that they use Prince Edward Island shellfish. As much as I usually promote local products, Pacific mussels are usually more rubbery, and I preferred the texture and flavor of these.

I’m a big fan of duck, and the Muscovy confit was one I’d serve to convert someone who thinks they don’t like it. Muscovy ducks were domesticated in South America in antiquity, and are a different species from the mallards that are common elsewhere. They’re much larger, and the meat has a richer flavor and a little less fat. This one arrived with a perfectly crisp skin and meat that was moist but not greasy, which is just what the confit process of slow-cooking followed by high heat roasting is supposed to achieve. It was served with roasted fingerling potatoes and a pool of demi-glace. I used the bread to mop that up because it was delicious. It was improved further by the glass of Chinon, a hearty wine with just a touch of oak.

We finished with a chocolate mousse that was just a bit sweet to my tastes (though it should be noted that the others at the table liked it, and I prefer dark and bittersweet chocolate), and a caramel apple tart in which the spiced fruit is wrapped in pastry before being baked. The two desserts between four people were a perfect finish, with regular or decaf espresso to give us the energy to get to the car.

Compagnon Bistro is modestly priced for a place with this standard of food and service, with entrees priced from $25 to $40. It’s a delightful surprise in San Pedro’s old town, and anyone who experiences it will want to show this hidden jewel to friends.

Compagnon Bistro is at 335 West 7th Street in San Pedro. Sunday Brunch 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Dinner Wed., Thurs. open 4 p.m. Wed. — Sun. close 8:30 p.m. Fri., Sat close 9 p.m. Sun. close 8:30 p.m. Closed Mon., Tues. Street parking or rear lot. Wine and beer served. Corkage $15. Wheelchair access good. Sound level low to moderate. Some vegetarian items. (424) 342-9840. CompagnonBistro.com. Pen

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