South Pasadena's French connection
Bistro de la Gare’s cuisine promotes Parisian perfection
By Dan O'Heron 05/17/2012
If you think that all French restaurants charge too much, or come with waiters who act like guests are a bother, you haven’t eaten at Bistro de la Gare.
At this cozy South Pasadena bistro with a flower garden patio, public-friendly prices are set by an owner whose T-shirts are inscribed, “Everything French but the Attitude.”
I don’t know of another French restaurant that serves dinner appetizers and salads from $5.50 to $8.50 and authentic entrees from $12.50 to $21.50 (excepting the filet mignon with wild mushroom sauce at $24.50, which only comes cheaper at Black Angus restaurant’s coupon sales.)
For sharing, generously portioned charcuterie platters come with an assortment of pates and rillettes mated with crisp, tart cornichon pickles available for only $10.50; artisanal cheese platters are $9.95. “I get cheese from Nicole’s French restaurant next door,” said owner Eric Umler. “She’s a friend.”
Several of Ulmer’s friendly waiters speak French, but they won’t hold it against you if you are unable to do likewise. If you’re having trouble pronouncing gratinee a l’oignon, just say “onion soup.” Those words, spoken again and again at dinner, are often expressed with ecstatic gestures, as the soup is arguably the best tasting onion soup around. It’s not debased by saltiness.
In it, onions, cooked agonizingly slow, mingle with white wine, chicken base and béchamel roux. Chef Michel puts a lid on the bowl with a rich, nutty and gooey Gruyere. Michel once cooked in Paris at the side of celebrated chef Michel Blanc. I myself celebrate Bistro de la Gare’s sauces and gravies. They are rich, velvety and firsthand French — none of those diluted dressings I’d get on Jenny Craig’s list.
For lunch, if you are fumbling with the pronunciation of croque monsieur, just say “ham and cheese.” Without a wilting glance, the waiter will serve you a classic sandwich of ham, Gruyere cheese and béchamel sauce, dipped into a beaten egg and sautéed in butter ($8.50).
Spreading like a Monet landscape, salads for lunch include a de chevre chaud (SHEV-ruh shoh) with mixed greens, tomato, eggplant, Roquefort toast and delightfully tart warmed goat cheese, plus vinaigrette ($8.95).
Dinners, besides the filet mignon, accompanied with fresh vegetables, include a $14.50 New York steak and a rosemary-roasted chicken for $10.50. Many start with escargots de Bourgogne au pastis ($7.50). Served in a traditional way — on a dimpled snail plate —six snails without shells, marinated in butter, parsley, garlic and shallots, are baked with a shot of 90-proof pastis, a licorice-flavored liqueur, similar to Pernod.
Owner Ulmer disabused me of the notion that snails should be served in their shells; that the indentations in porcelain dishes would keep them from rolling around. “That’s passe.” Kids, though, would love to roll the snails off the plate. To keep children amused, I always remind them that snails can travel to the table on a path of their own slime. But children should get pleasure from a nifty $6.95 to $7.50 kid’s menu. They’d really eat up an adult dessert of $6.95 profiteroles, cream puffs filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with melted Swiss chocolate.
For this, at the urging of their parents, who are drinking a lot of $8 wines by the glass, kids might stand up on their chairs and try to sing la Marseilles, the French National Anthem.
Owner Ulmer takes a French patriot’s pride in his restaurant of eight years and salutes the Gold Line rail that stops right next door to his place. As a former owner of Café Angelique, a fashion plate in downtown LA’s garment district, he’s able to keep a lot of his old customers. “Just the other day, I had 12 people at one table from downtown LA enjoying a long, long lunch.” Were they from the DWP? (I had to ask.)
If only the Gold Line had a spur in Eagle Rock, where Ulmer previously owned Boulangerie and Café Beaujolais. “The only reason that I left Eagle Rock,” said Ulmer, “is that 75 percent of my customers were coming from Pasadena, and I didn’t want to play hard to get.”
I’m just glad that I don’t have to defend the French dining experience at Ulmer’s place. There are no marches here against foie gras. There’s nothing of the 1970s ridicule of French nouvelle cuisine — three peas on a platter with a four-ounce piece of fish for $30. And I like to see customers smile when they are reminded that legislators in Pennsylvania once tried to ban the sale of French wines at state-run stores. I guess the pols didn’t know which wine was the best match for a Philly cheese steak.
Bistro de la Gare
921 Meridian Ave.
(at Mission Street)
Beer & wine