By JOHN HARLOW | Editor-in-Chief
This is a small place with a big personality.
It’s a bistro, which means it serves a strictly limited range of dishes only at the right time—like at lunch or dinner time—rather than the more-familiar brasserie, which can serve you a breakfast snack at midnight.
And it’s very, very warmly and wonderfully French.
There are only around 22,000 French people living in Los Angeles, say the official records, but as in other foreign climes, gastronomically they punch above their weight.
Belle Vie has been in operation for nearly a year in an unprepossessing strip in Brentwood, and it’s already established as a beloved local hangout. Few fail to be swayed by the exuberant Gallicisms of sommelier Vincent Samarco and the textured skills of chef Cedric Nicola.
They worked together in France, both worship Georges Escoffier—the delicate use of the herb chervil is a tribute to the master chef—and between them, they have created a little haven, a taste of Paris beyond the Seine. Its logo, after all, is a frog on a bicycle.
Take, for instance, the wine list: It’s “natural,” which means the purest wines are not only organic but also, unlike some fashionably “biodynamic” vintages, unadulterated by additives in the cellar or yeasts in the bottle.
There are only about 400 vineyards in Europe producing such wines and our host seems to know a good number of the growers personally, so he gets the pick of the crop.
But also, because they have to be drunk quickly, at a reasonable margin—this is not a silly price bistro. A glass will cost you the same as a slice of avocado toast in San Francisco.
Natural wines can be cloudy, a hit or miss, but judging by the Albert Hertz Pinot Gris, flowery as an Alsace wine and yet with an unexpectedly long finish, or the Fanny Sabre Pinot Noir, deceptively light, they are now coming of age.
The Salmon Gravlax, cured in beet juice, was served in thicker than usual slices, but extremely tender—quite a trick, my dining companion and I felt.
In the Angel’s Eggs, a playful version of Devil’s eggs remade for the City of Angels, one could feel the burned corn and chervil coming through at the back.
A delicate balance for such a simple dish.
The Beef Burgundy Taco was a “deconstructed” wonder—all the rich, flavorful ingredients, from the beef cheek simmered Bourgeon style to bacon and carrot, are not in the taco but around it. Not to be eaten on the move.
We eased back to enjoy the ambiance—the Tiffany-style glass above the bar, echoes of Le Dome restaurant in Montparnasse, but courtesy of Los Angeles salvage yards, the books pans and stopped clocks (a statement about a French mindset in itself) and some wonderful, slightly bonkers family art.
Every picture tells a story, and, if Samarco can find a breath, you may hear one or two.
Yes, very French. But we must get back to a highlight, which, despite moral qualms, was the locally sourced Grilled Octopus.
It was a large, meaty tentacle, served with finely shredded burnt cauliflower and a hazelnut and ‘nduja (spicy minced pork salumi) puree that managed to be both tender at one end and crisp at the other. You felt several different experiences all at once (including guilt—octopi are very smart and empathetic, but oh so tasty).
Yet I suspect our chef may be most proud of the 7 Hours Lamb Leg, a French traditional dish brought into the 21st century with harissa (a North African hot chili that put some local peppers to shame on the Scoville scale, yet still fruity). With garlic and thyme, the long-braised dish is an ultra-tender entrée that falls off the bone and lands in your happy place of memories.
An evening at this home from home, a couple of glasses and a smattering of dishes, with a quiet range of old rock and French classics in the background, maybe with a dense Pot O’ Chocolat to slowly share: It’s a moment when we can all share in la belle vie.