We finally got out to Canelé in Atwater Village, which has been lingering with Hatfield's and Jar and a few others on the To-Try List for some time now. We got in just after 9:00 P.M. to a restaurant that appeared packed, but they had a four-top for us hidden behind a half-wall on which the menu was written in chalk, tucked sort of in a corner along a banquette.
For some unexplainable reason, I was expecting a room in soft earth tones, some sort of beige or taupe. After all, the place is named for a little golden French baked good. Instead, the walls are painted a vivid scarlet. Bare bulbs hang from the ceiling, hunks of distressed wood appears as beams and tables, and oversized mirrors and photographs line the walls. The décor in no way reminds me of a delicate little canelé - something heartier and meatier like "Steak Frites" would seem a more fitting name. The tables are cheek-by-jowl - "Fat people definitely can't eat here," quipped one friend - and we had to squeeze in to get to our seats.
Unfortunately, our service left much to be desired last night. Our waiter, who appeared to be taking orders for the entire back half of the restaurant, took our drink orders fairly quickly. We told him when he brought our drinks we were ready to order, but, rather than take our order then, he said he'd be right back. But it was not until after we flagged down a bus boy nearly fifteen minutes later and told him we were ready to order that the waiter made he way to us - this after much waving of hands and menus towards anyone to get their attention. We had been sitting over twenty minutes at this point. As he made his way to us, he stopped at two other tables that had already been served just to check on them - this really did not make the table of hungry customer who had been gesticulating like air traffic controllers for a third of an hour happy. After we placed our order, one of our party inquired if there we could have more bread to stave off our hunger: They had just run out.
I was the only one with a starter - I had the pissaladière - and it arrived fairly quickly. From the time I finished my starter, it took another twenty minutes for all the plates for the whole table to come out, so we were famished. (They really should not have a clock in view of the diners.) We decided for dessert, too, and, again, the hand-and-menu-waving routine went into effect, until we realized that the only real way to get service was to snag the bus boy. One friend believed that our waiter was just standing at the espresso machine with his back to us long enough hoping we'd just give up wanting anything more. While the front of the house had the hostess and another waitress pitching in to serve a much smaller area, the back section had one waiter selectively serving taking orders, one guy bussing, and one woman hanging by the register, talking to the waiter, chatting with guests, and not doing much else.
It has been a long time since I've wanted to cut my tip below fifteen percent. Even when were put in the back room at Osteria Mozza, I cut it to fifteen percent on the dot. But last night, we all agreed to cut it back to around ten percent. This restaurant was too small for us not to be seen, and the tables right beside us got really excellent treatment as we were told to wait. The theory we formulated was that our tip was sacrified while others were puffed up. Honestly, there was no reason the relatively simple meal should have dragged out the two hours it did.
So would I return to Canelé after all that trouble? Yes. Because the food was really good.
The wine list is short but interesting, with California, France, and Italy represented. (For champagne fans, it's nice to see that one can get a glass of Drappier for $12 here.) There is also a short selection of beers for $4 each, with one at $6 for a pint. We had a good white Bordeaux at $28 for the bottle, but stemware sticklers should be forewarned: Canelé uses stemless Riedel O glasses.
The menu is short and simple, and someone expecting French cuising from the French name is in for a disappointment. Aside from the pissaladière and boeuf bourgignon, the food is simple American bistro food. The pissaladière with herb salad is a small onion tart. The onions are wonderfully sweet, and the pastry is buttery and flaky. It could almost be dessert. This was a hit with everyone at the table. The herb salad was really just flat-leaf parsley tossed with lemon and olive oil, nothing to write home about. One change from the online menu is that gazpacho has replaced the chilled potato-leek soup. I spied the heirloom tomato salad on a neighboring table, and it looked really delicious.
Two of us each ordered the Nonni's aglio olio, a big plate of vermicelli with parsley, garlic, and olive oil. A ramekin of grated parmesan came on the side for use to add to our taste. The pasta was cooked perfectly, with just the right amount of garlic. It was perhaps a bit oily, but it really hit the spot. In each of our dishes, we had a little piece of a pepperoncino. Both of us who ordered it agree that, if we order it again, we'll ask for more pepperoncino next time.
One diner go the oven-roasted pork chop with mashed potatoes and cabbage and apple slaw. (She was persuaded to get it instead of the roast chicken after another diner proclaimed, "No one goes out for chicken!") The potatoes were creamy with small lumps for authenticity, not elastic or overmashed. The slaw was slightly tart and refreshing, and the pork chop was just slightly pink inside. The delicate flavor of the pork really came through, making for a really excellent comfort meal. Our other friend got the beef tenderloin with pommes Anna and creamed spinach. The flavorful tenderloin came rare and fork-tender, but the pommes Anna - a sort of cross between a potato pancake and a gratin - was the real hit. Available as a side dish, I won't miss that dish next time.
We tried three of the desserts. One person claimed the peach crumble "tasted like potpourri." I thought it was fine, if a bit uninteresting. The flourless chocolate cake with toffee was like a big, fancy brownie. (Both came with vanilla bean ice cream.) The orange butter cake (my choice) was definitely the more interesting choice, but it was also the least favorite at the table. It tasted of orange and butter, and there was a tartness to the crème fraîche on top. But something about it was just a bit odd. We all agreed that next time, if we want dessert, we'll have the flan.
Or we'll just grab fistfulls of canelés. There was a whole tray of them. It doesn't appear that anyone was taking them. I was the only one who was looking for them from my group. A friend went back for them, and the waiter offered to back the whole tray - maybe about thirty - of them up for her. (Now that the restaurant was completely cleared out, it was easier to give us service.) The canelé at Canelé are small, about a third of the size of the ones at La Brea Bakery or Boule. There was one larger one that was darker. I thought it might be chocolate; it turns out it was just burnt. The flavor of Canelé's canelés are bland, the texture more dense. They aren't the uniformly smooth, light pastries from La Brea Bakery or the wobbly, decadent ones from Boule. But I suppose that's okay. They really are an afterthought.
Hopefully Canelé can get the service issue together. There was a huge table in the front window having a good time, and most other tables seemed to be getting good attention. We were the last table to come in for the night, so Canelé is probably not the best place to walk in for dinner after 9:00 P.M. We were also the hardest table to get to, but certain things, like stopping to schmooze other tables on the way to take our order, were genuinely unacceptable. But nothing crossed our table we didn't like. The entrées, the wine, and the pissaladière were all things we loved. "I'd like to come back and sit at another table," someone said. And that's how we all felt. Canelé has great food, and we're going to try and see past one night of poor service.
Dinner for four, with one starter, four entrées, three desserts, one bottle of wine, and two beers, was $135.30 before tip. Street parking is ample.
3219 Glendale Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90039