Paris in L.A.
Merrill Shindler - March 2009
A French master chef brings the spirit of La Coupole to the beach.
Ask chef director Alain Giraud how he designs a kitchen, and he leaves the table to get a tomato. It's the middle of the lunch rush at his Destination of the Moment, the French brasserie Anisette, situated in the venerable Clock Tower Building on Santa Monica Boulevard midway between the bustling Third Street Promenade and the beach, where skateboards outnumber bicycles and halter tops outnumber T-shirts--in both cases by about 10 to 1.
Los Angeles has long dreamed of having its own version of New York City's Balthazar, a casual French joint where you can drop by in the morning for croissants that ooze butter with every bite and then return late at night for a platter of brine-tinged oysters washed down with a glass of fliny Sancerre or Muscadet. Situated in a former bank, Anisette has been embraced by foodies, skaters, and tourists. It even pulls in farmers from the celebrated Santa Monica Farmers' Market just a block away.
Anisette is a curiosity of a restaurant that required some two years of planning and construction. Catching your eye on the main floor, dominated by a four-story-high ceiling, is a zinc-topped bar decorated with shelves of wines and Champagnes; the higher the shelves climb, the more expensive the bottles grow, giving assumption that higher priced wines are closer to heaven. In this case, they're closer to the kitchen, which shares its space with a small dining area on the mezzanine reached by a steep staircase. (Because the main dining room can watch as you ascend, as if Hollywood majesty, you strive to use graceful steps, rather than clumping footfalls.)
Diners above, who view both the room down below and the glass-fronted pastry and dessert area adjacent to their upstairs tables, are able to see the kitchen through the pass, and it's clear that it's far from spacious. Its size actually harkens back to an age when chefs, often of considerable girth, produced miracles (and multitudes of sauces) in spaces the size of closets. And not walk-in closets, more like entry hall closets.
In his long flowing apron, pure white below a drizzle of stains, Giraud is a French chef right out of Central Casting. Like his mentor Michel Richard (with whom he worked for many years at the late, lamented Citrus on the southern edge of Hollywood), he wears a beard that's steadily meandering from dark to light. His hair is a tousled confusion. His accent is pure Maurice Chevalier. And, also like Richard, he goes through life with a Gallic twinkle in his eye. I've seen him in civvies, actually wearing a suit and tie. He was unrecognizable; this is a man born to wear the whites.
He returns to the table with a slightly gnarled tomato, an heirloom picked up that morning from the farmers' market. It sits on a plate, which he places reverently on the table. He studies it for a moment. And then, he explains: "This is the only tool you need to design a kitchen. Consider: First, you have to purchase it at the market. Then, it has to arrive in your kitchen, somehow, somewhere. You need a space to store the tomato. You will need a cutting board for cutting the tomato. You need space for that cutting board. You need a space to make the dressing. You need a container to hold the dressing, and a refrigerator where you can keep that container. You need a plate for the tomato. You need a place to prepare the tomato, and a place to put it on the plate. You have to figure out where you can keep the tomato on the plate, until it's picked up. You need a table for the customer, and a server. When the plate comes back, you need a place for it to go, and a space for the dishwasher. You need a place for the trash.
"You see," Giraud continues with a flourish and a grin, "it's a process. And it's all found in a tomato. You need to look at every recipe and ask yourself what process is needed, what traffic is created, how can you configure your kitchen so you can make that recipe--and make that restaurant--work. It is the Four Horsemen of Restaurant Operation--Purchase, Transform, Serve, Clean. And that is how we created our brasserie."
But there is, of course, a good deal more to the story. In his career, Giraud has gone from edgy bistro cooking at Citrus, to traditionally formal cooking at Lavande in the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, to even edgier cuisine at the much lauded Bastide. After Giraud parted ways with owner Joe Pytka (a legendary commercial director with very deep pockets and a restless nature), he went into a period of catering and exile, self-reflection, and just hanging around. And then, the phone rang.
"Mike Garrett and Tommy Stoilkovich [the partners behind hot spots Voda, Pearl Dragon, and Falcon] started talking to me," Giraud says. "They had been looking for a space for 10 years. And when this bank became available, they knew it was perfect. At first, I was just going to consult; I didn't want another restaurant, I had been through a lot. And then, after six months I realized I was ready to go the distance."
And that distance involved returning to his roots. "I went back to my memories of life in Paris," describes Giraud. "Anisette is based on the brasseries I grew up with. Everyone says, ‘It is like Balthazar.' But Anisette is not Balthazar. It is not L'Ami Louis [Paris]. If anything, it is La Coupole, a real Parisian brasserie. To be a brasserie, you need to be a democratic place, where it doesn't matter if you have a glass of Champagne or a beer at the bar. We are open all day, we have an oyster bar, we have rotisserie chicken. We have to explain to people all the time that we are not a bistro. In Los Angeles, bistro and brasserie have been mixed together. We are trying to undo that."
What Giraud did not want to do is dissuade locals from their need for casual dining. "After the restaurants of my past, that's what I wanted to do. It's what people in L.A. want. We are not a formal city. We like to eat in our beach clothing. I wanted people to not worry about how they look. Instead, I want them to taste the chicken on their plate. I want to keep it as simple as possible. Bastide was about precision, commitment, expectation. A meal there ran $150 to $200. Here, it's $30 to $40. We don't do a three-way tomato in a brasserie, one slice cooked, one raw, one as juice. We serve a tomato, period. It's direct food. We serve the best tomato. But it's still a tomato."
Giraud's first job was to create a menu--and then to create a kitchen that would accommodate that menu. "It's like a big puzzle," he explains. "My first menu was too large for the kitchen, so I had to shrink it. And when the menu was the right size, we could build the kitchen that allowed us to do everything we wanted to do--as long as we were willing to work very close to each other."
It's a culinary juggling act, built around a multitude of menus: for breakfast, lunch, mid-afternoon, dinner, late supper, the oyster bar, and dessert. "I wish I could have used the whole mezzanine as the kitchen," he sighs, "but there were too many restrictions, because we were going into such an unusual building. It's a landmark, with lots of marble that we had to work around. Because there was a vault, there are walls that are 54 inches of solid concrete. We couldn't drill through, we couldn't change them. There are fire walls we couldn't touch. We had to get so many permits and go to meetings, meetings, meetings. The City of Santa Monica is very concerned with any change that will affect the quality of life. But, we made it work."
After all the hoops had been jumped through, Giraud found that what he had to work with was a "very small" kitchen. "I don't even know the square feet," he says. "But it is right--the line is simple, there's space for a dishwasher and for pastry and breads. What we need is more space for storage. But then, restaurants always need more space for storage. We're back to where we used to be, with small kitchens in which everything has to be in its place, and everyone knows what they're doing. There's no space to waste, so there's no wasted space."
Not that Giraud is without regrets. "I would have loved to be downstairs, but there was no room," he explains. "It's a challenge to get the food from upstairs to downstairs still hot. We have many expediters, running up and down the stairs. They are very thin, very lean. They could run a marathon. It would be good for me to try it myself."
But the upside is so much more up than the downside is down. Anisette sits on one of the busiest streets in the city, with thousands of pedestrians passing daily from the beach to The Promenade and back again. "And I can infuse the menu with what I find at the farmers' market every week," he adds. "I am always there. The farmers are always here, drinking coffee, eating pastry early in the morning. This is so much like a brasserie in France. And we are fast. A brasserie has to be fast. And it has to have an open face. That is why there is a window that lets the diners watch the kitchen. It gets people involved with the process. It makes the customer happy to see what we're doing."