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dineLA October 2009: Pinot Bistro

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Pinot Bistro on Ventura Boulevard has seen may chefs come and go, some of them spectacular and some of them so-so. Previous chefs include such notable names as Octavio Becerra, Miki Zivkovic and of course, Joachim Spichal himself. Even Suzanne Goin has worked in the kitchen. We were excited to see what the latest chef, Hugo Veltman, has been cooking up and jumped at the invitation to try their dineLA menu.

The decor is the same -- low-key white tablecloth elegance. The bar area shows the real French influence, with black and white tiled floors and a long bar with a mirror behind. Part of the tiled bar area is being used as "bistro dining" filled mostly with lone lunch diners and those wanting a more informal environment. Light streams through the windows and the atmosphere is more lively than in the formal dining room.

The first appetizer choice was Onion soup gratinée, comté cheese and had it been just the day before, the cold rain would have made the soup an obvious choice. But yesterday the sun was shining brightly, and we both chose one of the cold salads.

My dining companion chose the Spinach salad, blue cheese crumbles, dried apricots, apple dressing, fried onions. The salad, although typical in nature, had the perfect amount of bitterness mixed with the fruits and high quality cheese,

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I chose the Roasted beets, hazelnuts, watercress, sherry dressing. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the beet salad. The beets were lovely, the dressing was spot-on. But I was hoping for a big mound of heirloom beets on a small bed of watercress, as with most beet salads I have been served in the past. So really, I could have used more beets and less watercress. But maybe some of you love watercress and would have reveled in its gentle bite over the sweetness of the beets.

Entrees included Rainbow trout, sautéed leeks, shitake mushroom, gribiche (a French mayonnaise-style sauce with pickles and capers). I was drawn to their house specialty Roasted chicken, although it didn't come with the usual pommes frites. The potato gratin, though, was creamy, rich, hearty and wonderful with a crispy cheese topping. I did not miss the fries. The chicken was as impressive as always, with a nicely seasoned, crackling skin and succulent meat. I treated the frisée as a garnish - the parsley of the 21st century.

My dining partner, being a vegetarian, went for his one choice - Fettuccine, marinated tomatoes, goat cheese, grilled eggplant, fresh basil. He really enjoyed the goat cheese, a pleasant surprise on fettucine. The pasta was al dente, resting in a tomato sauce with a consistency between pomodoro and liquified tomatoes. He would have preferred chopped tomatoes rather than the pureed tomato sauce, but I suppose it is an Autumn menu.

Dessert options included Vanilla profiteroles, hot chocolate sauce, but we chose the Chocolate croissant bread pudding and Lemon crème brûlée, candied zest, lavender. Yep, I love that lavendar! We were surprised to see the desserts arrive in giant soup bowls. The reason is obvious with the brulee - everyone loves the "burnt sugar" best, that first crack when you break the sugary topping. With a bigger bowl you get a much higher sugar crust to custard ratio. The lemon was so intense it made me screw my face up and gleak. My dining partner could only say. "Wow". The lavendar was limited to a few decorative buds and candied zest. I ate the entire garnish in one bite and my mouth exploded with lavendar and lemon.

The Chocolate croissant bread pudding had a lovely custard, and the bread was soaked into the custard, more like a New Orleans-style bread pudding, so you didn't get big bready mouthfuls. The dessert was uber rich in the chocolate center, which complimented the custard, which was milder. The chocolate flavor predominated, and the silky richness of the custard was pleasant on the tongue. The only reason I can imagine for the big bowl was for uniformity. Maybe that was how they were able to get a smoother dessert, without the crips outer crust and mushy interior of some bread puddings.

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Having patronized Pinot Bistro for the last 20 years, and abandoning it after two confusing and disappointing meals a few years ago, I am pleased to return to the fold. Pinot Bistro is once again a comfort and a delight. Hopefully it will prove to be the good old dependable standby it once was. I can't wait to return and try some pork belly or foie gras. And then we will know for sure that all is right again with the little French Bistro.