Au Petit Café

     When it opened in 1963, Au Petit Café, a pleasant little bistro at 1230 North Vine Street in the heart of Hollywood, proved something of a pioneer on the local restaurant scene. In a tiny rustic room with roughhewn walls and heraldic banners, which was quite a departure from the slicker dining rooms around town, it served forth French dishes not well-known at the time and demonstrated that a more personal and less formal French restaurant could succeed in southern California. Some of the chefs and waiters who contributed to its acceptance moved on to establish such local landmarks as Le Sanglier, Le St. Germain and Mon Grenier, taking with them a menu style that has become almost a standard.

     Chalked on Au Petit Café’s large hanging blackboard, in lieu of a printed menu, are specialties that now turn up on French and Continental cartes all over town. I hadn’t realized, for example, that the mushroom salad I’ve enjoyed elsewhere made its debut here. So did that sugar-rimmed coupe filled with vanilla ice cream whipped with Cognac covered with strawberries and raspberries, and Grand Marnier that assumes such names as delice and coupe maison in other establishments. What I would never have guessed, though, is how many interesting dishes are not on the menu because of the timid tastes of the public, Kit Marshal, the owner of Au Petit Café, tried just about everything in an attempt to create a true Parisian bistro with typical bistro fare. Former offerings include boudin, for example, made to order by a French sausagemaker (“it was really extraordinary,” Mr. Marshal says wistfully); andouillettes, or chitterlings; and even a dish as straightforward and understandable as pot-au-feu, but the customers would have none of it. The Southern Californians seem to be experimental in almost every facet of life except food. Surprisingly, there was enthusiasm for veal kidneys sautéed dijonnaise (with mustard and cream) or Bercy (with shallots and white wine). But neither Au Petit Café nor any of its progeny has been able to persuade the public herabout that a caneton aux navets can be as savory as a caneton a l’orange. The whole world loves an orange, but how many friends has a turnip?

     Among the half dozen or so first courses, two salads stand out: that raw mushroom salad, a generous plate of thinly sliced mushrooms sprinkled with chives and shimmering with vinaigrette, which is still first-rate at its fount; and a house salad (also encountered elsewhere) that is a whole series of handsomely composed mini-salads. Surrounding half an avocado are mounds of bay shrimps, sliced tomato, shredded carrot, mushroom salad, braised leeks, and hearts of palm, all dressed with the unctuous and lovely vinaigrette.

     Every evening Au Petit Café lists ten to fifteen main dishes, which, in these chilly months, may include roast pheasant with morels, poached turbot sauced with a beurre blanc, or half a broiled lobster, the native spiny species, glazed with butter sauce fragrant with provencale, herbs. Way back in salmon season Jean-Jacques Dartois, the evening chef, produced a poached salmon that was still moist and gloriously pink—a feat of timing too few kitchens seem able to pull off—masked with a pleasant sorrel sauce. Year round there are quail with grapes; a recommendable rack of lamb tasting faintly of tarragon; and trout sometimes stuffed with salmon mousse or sautéed with bay shrimps and mushrooms. One can hardly go wrong with any fish here, whether the sand dabs Veronique or the sea bass, which one time came wit a suave Duglere, a cream sauce pink with tomato. For those who do not like to dine out on weekends, an inducement to do so might have been Au Petit Café’s langue de veau Choiseul, a roast loin of veal accompanied by a Madeira cream sauce with grapes, mushrooms, and pearl onions, which used to be prepared only on Friday and Saturday nights. I’m happy to report that, due to it’s popularity, the dish is now a regular item on the menu. The seasonal vegetables served with all the entrees are thoughtfully treated and may include cauliflower au gratin, even turnips (all disguised as a smooth puree), and usually pommes dauphine, deep-fried potato puffs.

     Apart from the spirit-laden coupe mentioned earlier, the desserts are undistinguished. There was a pretty presentation of profiteroles one evening with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce.

     Au Petit Café serves dinner from 6 P.M. until 11 P.M. every day but Sundays and lunch from noon until 2:15 P.M. Monday through Friday. In the evening entrees are priced between $7.25 and $9.50 and first courses average $2.50. At lunch, Henri Ibarz, a native of Zaragoza, is chef, and the large menu selection includes several salads and such popular dishes as calf’s liver lyonnaise and steak tartare, with offerings ranging between $4.25 and $4.75. The bistro-style service by aproned waiters is informal. A couple of years ago Au Petit Café enlarged its seating capacity by opening Le Sous-Sol, a plushy and popular basement room with a bar, a French guitarist, and myriad antique mirrors in all shapes and sizes covering the red concrete walls. The line of tables seems claustrophobically close, but many of the restaurant’s customers really like to dine elbow-to-elbow, viewing the show business scene through looking glasses. I prefer the ladder-backed chairs upstairs to the flocked velvet seats below and the quieter and more relaxed mood of the original room. For reservations, which are essential for dinner, telephone 461-7176.