Review: Fraiche, Culver City

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Chef Benjamin Bailly, steak tartare, tomato dip, the bar at Fraiche (Photos by Peden + Munk for Angeleno)

“I don’t want you to think I’m judging you,” the waitress says. And then she pauses, searching for the right words. It’s a long pause. “But… I think… you might be ordering too much food.”

We laugh, and she laughs with us. Still, she looks concerned. I’m dining with a semiprofessional eater, and between the two of us, we’ve ordered what we consider to be a typical dinner: a jar of Birkshire pork rillettes to start, followed by a couple of pastas, and then the duck confit and braised Kobe beef cheeks.

“We enjoy food,” I say.

“OK, well, great,” she says, nodding, still thinking. She starts to collect the menus and walk way but she stops short of pulling the menus from our hands. “Um…,” she starts again. A silent apology. “The pastas really are sized to be entrées. But if you’d like, I can check to see the kitchen will make half portions for you.” 

I appreciate it when servers take such a vested interest in their guests. The waiters have always been like that here at Fraîche. I don’t recall the portions being huge, though, so we assure her that we’ll be fine. And she heads off toward the kitchen comforted in the fact that she exercised due diligence. If we keel over from a heart attack, it’ll be our fault, not hers.

Several years ago when Fraîche opened, Culver Boulevard didn’t have much charm, and Culver City certainly didn’t have many smart dining choices. But the owners of Fraîche took a chance and helped pioneer what would ultimately become one of L.A.’s hottest restaurant rows. The boulevard now teams with pedestrians. The sidewalks are crowded with tables and chairs and heat lamps outside of wine bars and brasseries. Teenagers skate through in packs. Couples walk arm in arm. Young parents push strollers, and old-timers congregate on park benches.

As the neighborhood has grown up, Fraîche has dealt with a few growing pains. First, general manager Thierry Perez left. His departure deflated the restaurant’s stellar wine program. (He recently opened L’Épicerie down the street.) When he was around, I never had to fuss with the wine list. I would just tell him how much I wanted to spend, and he’d always uncork something fabulous, whether my budget was $40 or $140. No one has yet to step in to fill that void.

Not long after Perez’s departure, the original chef duo—Jason and Miho Travi—called it quits. Both were quite talented, but Miho especially was a bright rising star. I still remember fondly remember and think about her desserts. For a while after the Travis left, the restaurant slumped along on autopilot with, at best, mediocre food. Last summer after a particularly terrible brunch, I pretty much decided never to return.

Then, a few months ago, chef Benjamin Bailly came onboard. The young Frenchman with adorable dimples and heavy accent had been cooking at Petrossian, the caviar shop and café on Robertson, and I really liked his cooking there. He enjoyed a privileged access to the world’s best caviar and truffles. A master of social media, he has amassed a cult following outdone only by Ludo Lefebvre or Michael Voltaggio, and since his arrival at Fraîche, the Twitterverse has been abuzz about his new menu. His menu doesn’t look all that different from what Jason Travi was doing. The concept is still the same: a cross-border melting pot of French and Italian cuisines.

Our pork rillettes arrive in a pickle jar. It’s a perfect portion for two people to share, although I can also see how a larger group might also split it four ways. The pork is immensely silky, set in a thick, fragrant sheen of pork fat. I love the waxy feel of lard between my teeth, and the interplay of fat with a tannic Italian red wine. Strangely, there’s nothing on which to spread the pork. No toasts. No crackers. We spot a waiter. “Do these come with bread?” we ask. “No,” he says, “but I’d be happy to bring you some.”

I had indeed noticed a line at the bottom of the menu that reads, “Bread available upon request,” and I hadn’t ordered any. But it never occurred to me that a spread wouldn’t automatically be served with something on which to smear it. When the bread arrives, it’s a basket of soft, oily focaccia—not the ideal vehicle for slathering with rillettes. Oh, well. We pick up our spoons and dig in.

Soon the pastas arrive and they are indeed hefty. They’re not obscene like those troughs of dough the Cheesecake Factory feeds to the criminally obese. But they are large enough to make us question whether we should have heeded our waitress’s concerns. She walks by and gives us one of those looks that says, “I told you so.” We raise our glasses and toast to our fleeting health.

The pastas are delicious. Plump agnolotti are stuffed with mushrooms and explode in our mouths like little water balloons, full of earthy warmth and butter. Lots of butter. The other bowl is heaped with bucatini carbonara. I stab my fork into a quivering soft-poached egg that’s nestled on top, tossing it gently until the yolk has been fully absorbed by the noodles. I take a bite, and I reactively reach for the salt grinder. But before I go ahead and season it, I take another bite, and this time I come up with a big chunk of ham, which releases a gush of salty pleasure. The pastas have always been good here, and I think they might be better now than
they’ve ever been. On a subsequent visit, it’s the paccheri Genovese that steals the show. Paccheri are tubes of macaroni so large that they lie flat, completely surrendering to the weight of a fantastic ragu made with a heady mixture of beef and pork.

Beyond the pastas, I’ve enjoyed terrific beef tartare topped with whipped mustard (so light, at first I thought it was whipped cream), and there’s a wonderful osso bucco made with a pork shank instead of veal. The classics—salad au lardons, steak frites—are dependable and just what I’d expect from a savvy Frenchman. The aforementioned duck confit and braised beef cheeks both hold a lot of potential but, alas, it’s the chef’s night off (a Tuesday) when I’m sampling these. Unfortunately, they’re both burned to a crisp. We scrape off the top layers of black crispy charcoal, and what’s left underneath is actually very good. Fortunately, we’ve already overeaten by this point, so we’re not all that concerned. More room for dessert, we tell ourselves.

But desserts turn out to be a big disappointment. I take one bite of a so-called tiramisu, and I cringe at the grainy, off-putting texture. I want a new spoon so that I don’t have to lick it clean before sampling the pistachio crème brûlée. The custard itself is pleasant enough, with a sweet pistachio nuttiness and nicely caramelized shell, but it’s no improvement on a classic crème brûlée. It’s paired incongruously a strangely potent apricot sorbet, which is interesting on its own but the clash of flavors is too intense to hold my interest in either one for very long. Oh, Miho, how the city misses you.

Ah, well, desserts aside, the restaurant is definitely headed in the right direction again. Bailly has certainly turned things around. And Culver Boulevard has never been more exciting.

Fraiche
Rating: 2 stars
9411 Culver Blvd.
Culver City
310.839.6800

Hours 
Lunch, Mon.–Fri., 11:30am–2:30pm; dinner nightly, 5:30pm–10:30pm.

Who’s there
Loyal NPR listeners, the real housewives of Culver City, Asian bloggers and chef groupies 

Best table
The inside corner four-top that straddles the edge of the patio

Worst table
Without a doubt, the two top at the entrance of the patio

What it costs
Dinner: Starters, $8–$16; pastas, $18–$24; main courses, $26–$28; desserts, $3–$12. Lunch: Starters, $8–$9; main courses, $14–$24; desserts, $3–$12. Corkage, $15. Valet parking, $5.

What the stars mean:
0 = poor, unacceptable
1 = fair, some noteworthy qualities
2 = good, above average
3 = very good, well above norm
4 = excellent, among the area’s best
5 = world-class, extraordinary in every detail. 
Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service.


 

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