Double Review: Le Saint Amour vs. Meet Bistro (Culver City)

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Escargot at Meet Bistro (R) and Le Saint Amour (L) –photos by Peden + Munk for Angeleno

When I first heard that a new French café called Meet Bistro had opened, I didn’t give it much thought. With a name as awful as that, I figured, the place couldn’t possibly be good. But then one night after dining at Le Saint Amour, a charming French café on Culver Boulevard, I was surprised to notice that Meet is located directly next door. Even more surprising, the unfortunately named Meet was packed—every seat taken. Saint Amour, meanwhile, was only half-filled—even with highly acclaimed chef Walter Manzke temporarily manning the stoves.

I was struck by how these two French restaurants could compete side by side…

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Le Saint Amour

The only thing separating their sidewalk patios is a thin row of privacy hedges. On the right-hand side of the bushes, the patio at Saint Amour is decked with the traditional bamboo chairs one associates with Paris brasseries. The tables, shaded by large black umbrellas, are draped with fine white tablecloths and then topped with white butcher paper. Inside Saint Amour, the walls are lined with red leather banquettes. The accompanying seats are the stereotypical wooden chairs with curvy backs so commonly found in casual French cafés. The wood floors look shiny and new. Elegant glassware sparkles on the tables. And over on the bar, a large silver punch bowl holds a half-dozen bottles of Champagne being offered by the glass. The décor is not as perfectly set-designed as Kendall’s downtown or the now-defunct Anisette in Santa Monica, but Saint Amour still feels very authentic.

Next door, the lights at Meet are dimmed to a romantic glimmer. Inside and out, the tables are draped with red-and-white checkered tablecloths topped with white butcher paper and bottles of oil and vinegar, which suggests an Italian trattoria rather than a French café—but the “French Bistro” sign above the door quickly clarifies any confusion. The glassware here is thick-lipped and unrefined, the way it usually is at those wonderful little back-alley bistros in Paris. The rattan chairs are wide-seated and comfortable, making the elbow-to-elbow squeeze quite tolerable. There is a slightly grungy patina to the floors and baseboards—a time-worn look that’s hard to come by in a city with such short history. French music warbles softly from overhead speakers.

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Meet Bistro

Both restaurants feature a similarly designed open kitchen tucked behind a wooden bar in the middle of the dining room. On either side of the divide, pots and pans clank against the stoves. Flames lick up over skillets of mussels. Crocks of onion soup heaped with cheese can be seen bubbling and blistering beneath red-hot broilers. On the sidewalk out front of each address, hand-scribbled chalkboards tout the specials and prix fixe options du jour. Pause briefly in front of either entry, and a very French waiter will attempt to charm and lure you beyond the threshold with an impassioned, “Bonjour, bonjour! Please come in,” playing up a thick foreign accent.

One night as I’m standing out front, I look over at Meet and watch as a young couple, who has just paid their tab and is headed out the door, stops to hug their waitress. It’s a big, heartfelt bear hug. At that exact same moment next door at Saint Amour, a different couple, who has just arrived, rushes to the bar and hugs the bartender. Air-kisses soon fill the air as a waiter also hurries over to say hello to the apparent regulars.

I’ll later learn that the waitress at Meet who was the target of that hug, as well as the bartender at Saint Amour who was the hugger on the other side, were both the co-owners of their respective restaurants. There’s no shortage of neighborhood love being shown by either place. Both bistros are owned by husband-and-wife teams from France. Saint Amour is run by Florence and Bruno Herve-Commereuc (he’s from Normandy; she’s from Paris), who formerly owned a petite French cafe downtown called Angelique. In chef circles, Bruno is well regarded as the sausage supplier to some of L.A.’s top French restaurants.

The duo behind Meet Bistro is Sebastien Cornic (the son of Parisian restaurateurs) and his wife, Cecile. The couple moved to California from Paris three years ago, and they both work the floor as waiters every day. They recruited their friend Emmanuel Pradet (from Clermont-Ferrand, France) to consult and design the menu. Pradet was the chef at L.A.’s Mimosa for many years—back when Mimosa was just about the only French bistro in town (now closed). One night when I’m presented with the dessert menu at Meet, I’m disappointed to not find the Nutella crepes that I had noticed earlier in the day on the bistro’s website. Seeing the sadness on my face, Sebastien apologized for the out-of-date menu on his website and for not having any Nutella on hand. He then enthusiastically jumped behind the stove, grabbed a pan and set about whipping up a special off-menu order of crepes Suzette with Grand Marnier.

Two Classic French Scripts

The menus at both restaurants adhere to a classic French script: escargot, frisee salad with a soft-poached egg and bacon, French onion soup, steak tartare, steak frites, a cheese board, profiteroles… And in some instances, there’s not much difference between the two. The French onion soup from either kitchen is excellent, although if I had to pick a winner, I’d go with the soup from Saint Amour since the crouton beneath the cheese is more durable, less eager to disintegrate into the sweet, onion-y broth.

Practically identical frisee salads are good at both places, but I think I prefer the one at Meet. The bacon is crispier. The egg is runnier. The escargot at both bistros are admirable as well. At Saint Amour, the snails arrive tucked into their shells—as soft and hot as wet lava. I’m given a pair of special pliers to grip the shells and a special pick to pluck the buttery, garlicky creatures from their homes. I do my best Julia Roberts impression and accidentally fling one of my slugs across the table and almost into the lap of the guy I’m dining with. Alternatively, the snails at Meet are equally plump, extracted from their shells and served in a fricassee of butter, garlic and cream with a golden wafer of puff pastry on top. Who does it better? I can’t decide. I love the ceremony of plucking the snails from their shells at Saint Amour. But I also love the decadence of the sauce at Meet. I love dragging a slice of baguette through the buttery, creamy remnants.

At both bistros, I look around and notice heaps of mussels (and paper cones filled with french fries) on nearly every table. This is a specialty and a point of pride at Meet, where the mussels are offered 10 different ways, including Thai-style with coconut curry and lemongrass; Dijonnaise-style with mustard, tarragon and cream; Provençal-style with fennel, thyme and tomatoes; ocean-style with prawns, calamari, garlic and Chablis… And every Wednesday on the Left Bank, it’s all-you-can-eat-mussels night.

Saint Amour knows merely one way of doing mussels: steamed with shallots and white wine. Saint Amour’s mussels are bigger, plumper and meatier, which I find to be more satisfying in relation to the amount of work that goes into the effort, i.e., the number of micro bites it takes to make a meal. It’s too bad Meet doesn’t source its mussels from the same supplier because some of their flavors are much more interesting. 

Neither place wins me over with its steak
tartare. At Saint Amore, the beef is chopped too roughly for my taste, with pieces so large, it feels as if I’m eating raw stew meat. The hefty chunks require more effort to chew than I’m willing to endure.

At Meet, when I order the tartare, the French waiter leans down to ask, “You realize that dish is served raw, don’t you?” Meet’s raw steak is chopped perfectly, but it’s completely overwhelmed by the sour tang of capers and pickles—so much so that the overall profile resembles hot dog relish with no discernable trace of fresh beef flavor. I wanted to send it back, saying, “You realize this is supposed to taste like beef, not pickles, don’t you?”

The Key Differences

For all their similarities, each restaurant does have a few specialties that set it apart. At Saint Amour, the trump card is Herve-Commereuc’s housemade charcuterie, which is among the very best in L.A. His merguez—a French Moroccan-style lamb sausage—is as perfect as it gets. Every time I walk into Saint Amour, this is the first thing I notice. It’s a wonderful aroma—the telltale gaminess of sheep casings stuffed with ground lamb, sizzling in a hot skillet, unleashing their bright orange juices, filling the dining room with the smoky fragrance of paprika, garlic and cayenne pepper. His housemade pâtés and terrines are equally superb. A sampler arrives with four generous slices, each one cobbled together in a different pattern and texture, from the smooth elegance of chicken liver to the chunky rusticity of something resembling head cheese.

When it comes to the main courses, Saint Amour pulls ahead. This is where the expertise of Walter Manzke—at least for now—really comes into play. The former Bastide and Church & State chef is an absolute master of timing and technique. Although not a permanent fixture here, he’s been a driving force in the kitchen three or four nights a week for the past several months, acting as consultant and mentor while he works on opening a new restaurant of his own, whenever and wherever that might be. The sous chef here, John Butler, was also Manzke’s right-hand man at Church & State. It’s no surprise that the duck confit is excellent, served with pan-roasted potatoes, dried cherries and drippings. There’s an outstanding lamb shank that obviously comes from a big, fat, flavorful American sheep. And the beef Bourguignon, made with braised beef cheeks, is every bit as tender and fluffy as the gnocchi that mingle in the same bowl. A side of mashed potatoes is so rich with butter that they are actually the same color as butter. A side of green beans is also decadently drenched in butter—yes, this is classic French cooking—along with handfuls of fresh tarragon. I can’t recall a single time when I’ve tasted beans so delicious. 

The kitchen at Meet isn’t quite as meticulous as that of Saint Amour. On the left side of the fence, they don’t attempt the trickier things like foie gras, pâté or duck confit. But they do a very respectable job with halibut, a large piece of fish that’s perfectly cooked and lovingly cloaked in lemon beurre blanc. The beef short ribs are dry—overcooked and desperately in need of more sauce.

There is one area where Meet absolutely clobbers Saint Amour, and that’s with its steak—a côte de bœuf for two—a massive bone-in ribeye that is as good a piece of meat as I’ve ever found in L.A. Priced at $60, it is by far the most expensive thing on any menu on this street, but the same steak at one of the city’s top steakhouses would cost significantly more. The massive beast is carved into thick, bloody slices—its perfectly charred flesh dripping with butter—and served on a large cutting board that barely fits on the table. Too bad about the frozen french fries, though. Neither place gets the fries right yet.

The contest evens out again when it comes around to dessert. Profiteroles are a tie, as are the dueling apple tarte tatin. And while Meet has a very good crème brûlée, Saint Amour fires back with an equally delicious pot-au-crème swirled with caramel and sea salt. Meanwhile, Meet falls flat with a terrible waffle cone (cold, premade and stale), while Saint Amour fares just as badly with a flavorless peach crumble that I can only guess is meant to celebrate the three-month anniversary of the end of peach season.

            In the end, both bistros are quite good, and I hope they can continue to coexist. The next time I’m in the mood for a terrine of foie gras, beef Bourguignon and pot-au-crème, I’ll be heading to Saint Amour to get my fix. But if I’m in the mood for a fantastic frisee salad and a truly excellent steak, I’ll most likely head to Meet. Overall, though, Saint Amour enjoys the competitive edge—and the better name. But I wouldn’t underestimate the competitive spirit of Meet—whose name probably sounds a lot better when translated into French.

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Meet French Bistro
9727 Culver Blvd., Culver City, 310.815.8222
Rating: 2 stars
Hours: Lunch: Mon.–Sun., 11:30am–3pm. Dinner: Tues.–Thurs. and Sun., 5pm–9:30pm; Fri. and Sat., 5pm–10:30pm. Brunch: Sun., 10am–3pm.
Who’s there: Parisians, academics, the fashion ambivalent and cute young couples on first dates
When to go: Prix fixe Tuesday = three courses for $29.95. Wednesday night = all-you-can-eat mussels for $21.95.
What it costs: Dinner: appetizers, $6–$12.95; entrees, $15.95–$30; sides, $5–$6; cheese, $16.95–$24.95; desserts, $6.95–$8.95. Lunch: appetizers, $5.50–$9; entrees, $9.95–$19.95. Breakfast/brunch, about $12. Corkage, $15 (waived on Thursdays) 

Le Saint Amour
9725 Culver Blvd., Culver City, 310.842.8155
Rating:
 3 stars
Hours: Dinner: Sun.–Thurs., 5:30pm–9:30pm; Fri.–Sat., 5:30pm–10:30pm. Lunch: Mon.–Fri., 11:30am–3pm. Brunch: Sun., 10am–3pm
Who’s there: Parisians, people who take pictures of their food and bachelorettes who like to flirt with Frenchmen
When to go: On most weeknights, Saint Amour has been offering a three-course prix fixe from the regular menu for $34.
What it costs: Dinner: appetizers, $5–$13; entrees, $16–$23; sides, $6-$7; cheese, $11–$18; desserts, $8. Lunch: appetizers, $6–$11; entrees, $11–$18. Breakfast/brunch: about $12.95. Corkage, $15


 

 

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