By S. Irene Virbila, Los Angeles Times Restaurant Critic
March 3, 2011
Chefs seem to be caught playing musical chairs more than usual lately, so much so that it's hard to keep up on all the moves. In mid-November, Ben Bailly, the baby-faced French chef at Petrossian, grabbed the head chef job at Fraîche in Culver City, making way for Giselle Wellman to move from Bouchon to Petrossian. Meanwhile, Fraîche's original chef, the hardworking Jason Travi, has been gone for over a year. Right now he's over at Firefly tweaking the Studio City restaurant's menu (and feeding frequent diner, the great Lucinda Williams).
Since arriving at Fraîche three months ago, Bailly has been tweeting like crazy, issuing bulletins about what's new on the menu and dishes he's trying out. He's also been forwarding every gushing compliment he gets from fans, but that's slowed to a trickle of late. He's definitely a sweetie, accessible and charming, but maybe he should think about toning down the self-promotion until he's got Fraîche's kitchen in focus.
Coming from such a small — let's say leisurely — restaurant as Petrossian to this Culver City powerhouse can't be easy. Especially because after Travi left, Fraîche (which has a sister restaurant in Santa Monica with a different chef) had languished. I happened to check in just weeks before Bailly arrived, and the news regarding the kitchen wasn't good. My meal was flat-out terrible, unrecognizable as the same food that Travi and team had been turning out when Fraîche first opened. So Bailly had his work cut out for him.
On the plus side, the staff is clearly energized and impressed with the young French chef. He's there working hard to turn around this behemoth of a restaurant. The place seems busier now.
And, the food is getting better. Try Bailly's smoked trout rillettes smoothed with crème fraîche and lit up with lemon and chives. Served with toasts and presented on a wooden board made from an old wine box, it's just one of the spreads and dips organized under the category "share" and presented in French canning jars. At $8 or $9 each, they feel generous and festive. A creamy eggplant caviar is embellished with raisins and marcona almonds, and there's also a piquant piquillo pepper spread dressed up with chorizo and Manchego.
If you're into spending $3 apiece on oysters, you can have a real feast. Or, to go in a completely different direction, prime steak tartare. I like that it's hand-chopped and that the seasoning has some bite. Foie gras terrine seems a little mingy for the price, but it's good — not great — quality and garnished with rhubarb and glistening pomegranate seeds — nothing too sweet.
I guess what I'm getting at is the fact that the food is good, decent, fine — whatever you want to call it — but not particularly compelling. Bailly obviously wasn't hired to do the polished French cooking he turned out at Petrossian. For a classically trained French chef, rustic Mediterranean can go against the grain. Alain Giraud (Citrus, Bastide) wasn't into cooking bistro at the now-shuttered Anisette. He can do so much more. Anybody, the thinking goes, can cook those standard dishes. I'm just guessing here, but that may be the way Bailly feels too.
I know he's working hard. The tweets lay it all out. But he seems a little lost in this new world of Mediterranean comfort food, pastas and hearty main courses. For one thing, pastas tend to be overcooked and over-sauced. Nothing wrong with his beef-and-pork ragu. It has a nice flavor, but there's just too much of it ladled over those flattened tubes called paccheri, which are cooked way beyond al dente. Garganelli are weighed down with a shredded rabbit sauce that includes mustard, prunes and tarragon. It just isn't the right texture for that kind of pasta.
If the idea is to fancy up bucatini carbonara with a poached egg instead of the usual raw egg, it doesn't work. You don't get the same amalgamation of yolk and Pecorino with pancetta fat that makes the hearty pasta dish so addictive. I'd forgotten how important cooking pasta al dente was until I tasted a few dishes that weren't. It's as if the flavors collapse in a heap around the pasta.
Main courses don't stand out. The best dish — and it's no surprise — is loup de mer cooked so that the skin is crackling crisp, the flesh beneath still moist. The combination of sweet, nutty salsify with earthy sunchokes served with the fish rings true. Duck confit should be irresistible, but this one isn't: It lacks that crisp, fatty skin and deep flavor but redeems itself somewhat with the accompanying fregola sarda (something like Israeli couscous) sautéed with wild mushrooms.
Kobe beef cheeks are this year's short ribs — on every other menu. Like short ribs, they're rich and meaty, but unless a chef has something new to say with his dish, they're a yawn, even with horseradish gremolata sprinkled over for contrast. Steak frites, again, is fine, but nothing special.
Sides are sometimes better than the mains when you're talking about dishes like snowy burrata with fresh pear and broccolini, or a nice rendition of frisée au lardons embellished with blue cheese, or baby beets with milky housemade ricotta, accented with orange and pistachio.
Finish a meal with a trio of pot de crème — chocolate, Meyer lemon and buttery caramel — or a molten chocolate cake with a side of peanut butter ice cream.
Right now the menu reads like a collection of L.A.'s most popular dishes, which could mean that Bailly isn't really getting to write his own ticket yet. The guy can cook, if the wonderful soups and first courses he made at Petrossian are anything to go by.
But if Fraîche is going to get back its mojo and be known for more than its inviting outdoor terrace or as a refueling stop before heading elsewhere to hear some music or catch a play, the kitchen needs to inject more personality into the menu.
Bailly is a quieter cook than Travi, more subtle, and if he can get the hang of this Mediterranean thing, I'm hoping for a reinvigorated Fraîche.
Rating: ✭ ½ Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality.****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good.No star: Poor to satisfactory.
Location: 9411 Culver Blvd., Culver City, (310) 839-6800, http://www.fraicherestaurantla.com
Prices: Dinner appetizers, $12 to $18; charcuterie and spreads, $8 to $9; pasta, $18 to $24; main courses, $26 to $28; desserts, $8 to $12. Lunch salads and sandwiches, $12 to $16.
Details: Open for dinner daily, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; for lunch Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m to 2:30 p.m. Happy hour is 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. daily. Full bar. Valet parking, $6.50. Nearby public lot too.