Mrs. Swift chose our neighborhood "semi-French" gem for one of her birthday dinners with friends last night. With only 10 tables and booths it has an intimate feel but without any sense of crowding. We arived for our 6:30 reservation and were greeted immediately by Chris, the owner and host, by first name (a bit overly-familiar for the hired help, I thought, especially since we are in no way regulars there) and seated at a roomy four-top instead of the more intimate, but smaller, booths for 4. Strange, at 6:30 Chris already had his necktie loosened and collar unbuttoned (contrast with Piero at Valentino who always is impecably dressed).
The house-cured gravlax (complimentary) are sliced tableside, 5 generous slices with a pleasantly mild dill sauce on the side. The fish had great texture but little actual dill on the flesh, hence a very mild cured flavor. A very nice way to begin the meal while reading the menu, presented on two sides of a "blackboard" on a stand. The "chalk" printing on the menu is really paint and I don't think that the written menu has changed in years.
No hard liquor so we opted for a round of vermouth-cassis, very nicely done and refreshing with no sparkling water. Corkage is $25 and the wine list not stellar, but I'd forgotten the wine at home so we did a Cab. The wine service is pretty good, very attentive. The stemware is OK in a wide, bird-bath sort of way.
Very often the nature of the bread basket will foretell the future of the meal. Here was no exception. A never-ending supply of warm, crusty sourdough rolls (Pioneer in Santa Monica, I think) that were perfect for sopping up the juices of the two starters, steamed clams and steamed mussels ($12 each). The clams were the winner, tender Manila clams in white wine with a hint of terragon and a good briny kick. The black mussels were in a creamy white wine sauce which was very tasty, but not as good as the clam broth. A few of the smaller ones were a bit overcooked.
The mains: Sweetbreads ($24), pan sauteed in a pan reduction of mushrooms, shallots, veal demi glace, wine and a hint of cream. Four delicious, large lobes which I unfortunately couldn't finish although I wanted to. Served with butter sauteed sugar snap peas and good mashed potatoes. As much as I love sweetbreads, next time I'll try the rack of lamb, 7 ribs carved tableside which looked and smelled great. The John Dory ($30) on sauteed leeks was delicious. Our guest did not specify medium-rare so it came out medium, overcooked for my taste but still excellent, not dry at all. The fish was pan roasted with a tangly butter sauce on the leeks. Grilled salmon ($32) came medium-rare as requested in a delicious butter sauce with a hint of dill. Unfortunately too sweet for my taste. Accompanied by sauteed al dente asparagus that was a nice foil to the sweetness. I didn't get to taste the sauteed shrimp ($25), nor did I think to count them, but they were announced to be "delicious" and consumed very quickly.
Three desserts: fresh raspberries, most of which were a bit mushy, an espresso creme brulee which was only OK (next time the regular) and a flourless chocolate cake which I didn't taste but which vanished quickly. Total = $24.
The service was A+, attentive but not hovering. A true businessman, Chris doted on a table next to us where many bottles of wine had been brought in for a party of four (remember that $25 corkage), unfortunately at the expense of a couple of new tables who had to wait for their gravlax.
Total damage, $243 before tip. A very pleasant meal with solid, delicious food and excellent service. It's easy to see why the place is popular.
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