Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Enigmatic Comme Ça

Robert Louis Stevenson would have loved the strange case of David Myers’ Comme Ça. During the day, when Dr. Jekyll inhabits the restaurant, it is a convivial brasserie with quality French standards, adjusted to the Los Angeles diet, with few discernible sacrifices aside from the Restoration Hardware aesthetic. Plentiful sunlight enlivens the main dining room’s dark colors and creates a leisurely atmosphere. The usual crowd of failed Queer Eye auditioners and ladies all gussied up with collagen and faux sophistication is more amusing than grating.

The food is very good during lunch service. The parentals and the now Ever Sagacious Primipara delighted in the lemony smoked salmon tartare. Served on a thin, crispy potato galette, i.e., a latke, the salmon had a bright taste and a subtle smokiness that compelled my parents to order a second helping. My father and I split the mustardy, caper-laden steak tartare, a particular treat because of the beef’s rich texture.

I ordered the moules frites as a main. The mussels and frites were satisfying if less than masterful. The broth revealed David Myers’ sophistication, or perhaps my idiosyncrasies. The kitchen spiked the light, creamy broth with a dose of pastis, specifically Pernod, which provided a welcome nuance. Pernod seems to be the only pastis seen stateside, and it is drunk less as an aperitif than used as a cooking additive, and then with such infrequency that it must be listed defensively, like an adequate warning of anise flavor to unwitting diners under a product liability standard. (For what it is worth, its manufacturer, Pernod Ricard SA, claims that Pernod is not a pastis because it is does not contain natural licorice extracts like Ricard. Pernod has a milder or at least less strident flavor, which may account for its greater prevalence in recipes relative to other anis-based spirits.) For example, on the menu’s description of the dish, “Pernod” appears even before “pomme frites,” when the only question concerning the broth that warrants an answer in print is whether the broth is based in cream, butter, or some other substance. We finished with a delectable tarte tatin from Comme Ça’s sibling and neighbor, Boule Bakery.

Mr. Hyde stalks the restaurant during dinner service when Comme Ça transmogrifies into an echo chamber-cum-nightclub. The half-hearted welcome at the front desk is as gracious as the greeting from the burly doormen at Bardot’s shrine to meretricious phoniness. The sound system broadcasts the pulsating noise euphemized as “techno music,” which irritates regardless of the decibel level. (There must be some middle ground between hearing “La Vie en Rose” on an endless loop and ripping off the soundtrack from O-Bar.) Worse, the restaurant succumbs to the great plague afflicting restaurants popular among Los Angeles Caucasians wherein management’s attention to the food is subordinated to its attention to the scene.

The kitchen demonstrated a perplexing lack of confidence in its brandade de morue gratinée, the timeless purée of salt cod, olive oil and milk. Served in a casserole, the brandade itself was delicious. The cod’s creaminess and salinity were in perfect equipoise, and the zesty, gratin crust was well executed. So why would David Myers, in his infinite wisdom, choose to smother the brandade in a superfluous, scarlet purée of piquillo peppers that seeped its way into the cod, imperiling its consistency? I was forced to use our bread to scrape the piquillo purée off the cod and then conceal the detritus from my vision in the breadbasket’s cloth folds. However, once I finished off the brandade, my own disgusting indiscipline forced me to scarf down the bread, replete with that cloying piquillo gunk.

The Primipara, then still gravid, wanted the aforementioned salmon tartare, which was the impetus for our quick return for dinner. But after dark, the salmon was insipid, its natural richness muted. Marisa’s incisions into the potato galette required the use of a steak knife, as the regular knife simply wouldn’t cut it. To exacerbate matters, Marisa’s “crispy” skate grenobloise was a wholesale disappointment. Sautéed for well beyond the filet’s level of resistance, the skate, like Burger King’s old Whaler sandwich, was ugly, brown and desiccated. At the very least, the kitchen displayed consistency, as the dish was just as bad as when I ordered it several months ago.

My loup de mer, literally the wolf of the sea, or as I later learned, the farm, is a Mediterranean sea bass prized by restaurateurs for the stability of its pricing and the yield of its usable meat. Italian restaurants refer to the same fish as “branzino.” Roasted with lemon and tarragon and served alone, the fish was as dry as the Mojave and was so compact that it could have been the victim of an unattended sandwich press. In fact, the only moisture on the table was from the non-Gallic side of mostly pureed white corn, prepared simply in butter.

We eschewed the desserts in favor of Comme Ça’s most serious endeavor, the cheese course. David Myers dedicates an entire station to its cheese counter and gives it a prominent location—opposite the bar and behind the front desk. Comme Ça may be the only restaurant in Los Angeles that employs a full-time fromagier, effectively a cheese sommelier. After we informed our actor that we wanted the cheese course, the fromagier took over service. She introduced herself and surveyed our tastes. We advised her of our obsession with Epoisses, the runny and deeply pungent proof of continued French culinary preeminence, and entrusted her with the rest.

At least for the cheese, Comme Ça’s perfectionism and sensibilities yield wonderful results. The fromagier brought out five cheeses, each from a different region, and astutely paired four of them with balancing flavors. The cheeses were served in order of ascending astringency and at the appropriate temperature which brought out each cheese’s essential qualities. Indeed, the plate was so intriguing that I finally managed to block out all the cacophony. For the record, we had the Norman brillat-savarin, a triple-cream brie with a flavorful rind, brought out by dried mission figs; the Abbaye de Belloc, a sheep’s milk cheese from the Pyrenees with marcona almonds; the Pico, a goat from the Ardeche and Drome regions in the Alps, accompanied by sun-dried tomato (the most harmonious of the pairings); the Burgundian Epoisses, wisely served unadorned; and at last a raw Roquefort, the famous blue made from Lacaune ewes’ milk in the caves of the mountainous Aveyron region, served with sweet honeycomb.

After the cheese course, the dining room’s unsettling acoustics returned. The waiter by now had switched tacks on the loup de mer, blandly describing the beleaguered farmed fish to incoming patrons with unintentional aptness, as “a Mediterranean whitefish.”

Comme Ça
8479 Melrose Ave.,
West Hollywood
(323) 782-1178