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Cheval Blanc, Round 2: Oink, Oink!

Will Owen | Feb 3, 201011:36 AM

This last Tuesday night we made our promised second visit to Cheval Blanc in Pasadena, this time with Maman - it was her birthday present to me. We were early for our 7:30 reservation and the place was almost full, but we were shown to one of the few empty tables immediately and furnished with menus and drink lists. Mrs. O and her mom both like bubblies, and each got a glass of the Veuve Vernay Brut, while I stuck with the Beaujolais from Albert Bichot. Wines, water, bread and butter appeared quickly, all in good quantity except the bread, which was just four pieces on a plate rather than half a loaf in a basket as one might expect.

Maman immediately homed in on the Moules Dijonnaises, mussels being one of her favorite things to eat, but as she doesn't like the New Zealand green-lipped ones she asked our server what sort they might be. Server said she'd ask, and came back to say they were black Santa Barbara ones, and so after confirming that although they were on the appetizer list it's a generous portion Maman ordered those. Mrs. O asked for L'onglet à L'echalotte, the hanger steak with a wine/shallot sauce, and I ordered the Tuesday special, Lapin à la Moutarde, which now appears on the printed menu as RABBIT à la Moutarde (why didn't they just say Rabbit with Mustard while they were at it?). Anyway, although I'd been mentally vacillating between that and the Choucroute Garni, when the server said the rabbit came with pappardelle, my favorite noodle, I had to have it.

Mrs. O and I had just gotten a second glass of our wine when the food arrived in style. The steak and its trimming - a rich purée of potatoes and some bright green haricots verts - were presented on the plate, while Maman's mussels and my rabbit were in covered pots with larger plates underneath, handy for my rabbit bones. Maman was also brought a cup lined with a standup paper collar full of fine matchstick frites, plus a bowl for her shells. Lids off, the pots presented a giant pile of mussels over there, with what appeared to be sprigs of fresh thyme strewn over the top, and confronting me a great quantity of thick noodles and chunks of rabbit in a still-bubbling cream sauce. It looked and smelled very good, and before long Mrs. O slid her bread plate over and tapped on it rather pointedly, so I laid a bit of rabbit and some noodle on it for her to taste. Well, it was a tasty dish, but awfully beige; there were no indications that the meat had been browned at all, but apparently the dish had been prepared like a blanquette de veau rather than the braise that the recipe typically calls for. The least fortunate result was that the meat was a bit overcooked and dry, more like chicken breast than rabbit. And although the sauce was sinfully rich and the big fat pappardelle exactly as one would want, if there was any mustard involved it was keeping itself well hidden. However, both my dining partners and the server will testify that I finished off the entire pot.

Maman has an excellent appetite but not a large one, so after polishing off her mussels she still had almost a full serving of fries, with which we very kindly proceeded to help her. They were perfect, crisp and delicious even when barely warm. Mrs. O complained only that she's not used to that much meat at night, and was too stuffed even to hear about dessert. As for the damages, they were not at all ruinous: the food plus five glasses of wine came to exactly $91 before tax and tip, or roughly $30 apiece. That big pot of mussels with the frites is just $15, surely a huge bargain.

It's tough evaluating a place like this; that the food is good and in generous portions is a plus, though I would have preferred a smaller portion of a more flavorful and traditionally-prepared dish. The service is excellent, pleasant and attentive even when running at near-capacity, from the folks at the front of the house to the guy who tops up your water. I had my doubts about how accurate their self-styled "Bistro" appellation was when I saw that their Steak Frites dish comes with filet mignon, which is just wrong, and my bland rabbit would certainly never fly in France. We got the impression that they intend to open for lunch before too long, so maybe then I'll have a chance to see how authentic they get with the choucroute and the cassoulet...

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