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dineLA: La Cachette Bistro

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Once upon a time the words "La Cachette" evoked a sort of "ladies who lunch" sense of formality, even at dinner time. And while his La Cachette of days gone by was popular and beloved, Chef Jean Francois moved his restaurant to Santa Monica, to an the off-the-Promenade location, and reinvigorated the cuisine and atmosphere with a far more comfortable, family-friendly vibe. Hence La Cachette Bistro, where we went by invitation to sample their dineLA dinner menu.

On a weeknight, the rough edges of the day--whether those of a tourist from one of the many nearby hotels, business folk, or area workers--were being smoothed out with conviviality in the soft-lit eatery with big windows looking out on the Oceans--that's Avenue and Pacific, in turn. A seat at the bar will warrant checking out their drink menu, though the staff may be working hard to make espresso and alcoholic beverages for the dining tables and you'll find yourself with a bit too much time to study the drink list and catch a few too many "I'll be with you in a minute"s.

Better to get yourself seated and get to the raison d'etre--the food. At $34, the dineLA dinner is a reasonable deal, showcasing items culled from the regular menu that represent bistro comfort classics prepared with Chef Francois' fine hand and evident respect for ingredients. From the available appetizers we selected the Fish and Langoustine soup and the Beef Tartar. The soup arrived in a sturdy crock, with a sort of do-it-yourself assemblage option with shredded Swiss cheese and a rouille-topped toast for dipping. The broth itself was perhaps just a bit off-balance, leaning towards more dominant notes of shellfish, and while indeed rich and velvety, was prone to change flavor too cunningly based on bites of other items on its own plate (the cheese, the toast, plain bread, or a bite of another dish).

The champion of the appetizers was the tartar, which beckoned with an almost winking come-hither sheen. The elegant, micro-thin baked potato crisps were no match as vehicle with the conventional fork, as you'll want to move this bright, citrusy grass-fed beef into your mouth as swiftly as possible so as not to waste time tasting its herbal-green vibrancy and creamy-smooth texture.

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For our entrees we eschewed the seafood and went right to the meat dishes, both wintry, rustic bistro dishes. The Beef Bourguignon had been subbed with a similar Beef Daube, which we tucked into eagerly, marveling at the depth of flavor of the succulent chunks of meat swimming in brown sauce dotted with pearl onions and carrots, which we found under circlets of homemade buttery pasta, acting like bedding to tuck in and keep warm the meaty delights beneath. With no deference to the quality and excellence of the dish, it called to mind what might have once served as inspiration to those who mastermind any sort of "comfort classics" line of frozen microwavable dinners. Get a picture-in-a-picture of yourself, popping a sort of stewy-beef-with-noodles-and-veg into the nuker and imagine what you wish it would taste like when it emerged (and not its wan, watery, forgettable actuality). What you're eating at La Cachette Bistro is what you want--Chef Francois' chunks of beef, the luxurious sauce, the taut carrots and devilishly slippery onions.

The Housemade Boudin Blanc Sausage was the other entree on our table, a sort of cheeky dish with its nod to bar food done with panache. The two plump sausages did not resist the intrusion of the knife as one might expect a sausage to do--there was a surprising lack of snap and rather a soft yield. A bite revealed that the filling was finer than the grind of a typical sausage--a grind not unlike what you'd put to a dumpling's filling, or, pardon the stretch, your Passover table's Gefilte fish. Almost pulp-like, the sausage was mild and melting, but a bit overshadowed by the potatoes on the plate--not mashed but rather in, err, "tot" form. Just the right crisp on the outside and mealy give on the inside, these little orbs are delightful dragged through the plate's sauce and popped in your mouth in rapid succession.

The familiarity of La Cachette Bistro's dishes, particularly those on the dineLA menu, continued to remind us of bites from our childhood, and this happened again with dessert, thanks to the two fingers of warm, gooey chocolate cake that seemed a nod to the less elegant Devil Dog or Zinger you'd pick up at Chez 7-11. The warmth radiated from the cakes (even after our customary pause to make the plate do its supermodel, work! for us), which was cooled with a swipe of the vanilla ice cream. Our other dessert was an Apple tart, stacked with thin slices of apple on a bewitching, buttery, flaky pastry crust, topped with caramel sauce with creme fraiche on the side.

And we cannot tell a lie--would you expect us to, after we've referenced some questionable food memories a la Lean Cuisine, Hostess, and Manischewitz?--we began our meal, as so many meal should, with Foie Gras, courtesy of Chef Francois. A beautiful terrine slice, sumptuous and clean, which we spread on pieces of housemade bread and accented with explosively bright rhubarb jelly (for which we came near begging for the recipe so we could jar it ourselves and hand out as gifts for the holidays). If you have the budget and appetite to stray from the economy of dineLA, do indulge the $16 for this dish, or check it out when dineLA ends and your back on Ocean Ave in need of some lovely bistro fare.

Thanks to Elise Thompson for her contribution to this story.