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Anisette: A Lovely Day in Montmartreland

Woolsey Jun 29, 2008 12:55 AM

Anisette is a wonder to behold. A zinc bar stretches across the length of the room, with a marble trough fitted behind it. Bottles of absinthe and jeroboams of champagne are stacked two stories high on the bar’s back wall. The first things one is encountered with upon entering are fresh seafood on crushed ice and stacks of fresh pastries. After that, one must make the choice of looking at the soaring pressed-tin ceilings or the mosaic floors with the word “Anisette” inlaid in large brass letters. The stools and banquettes, with their brass hobnails and soft red leather, look too old to be in a restaurant this new.

Anisette has detail overload. It doesn’t seem designed as much as Imagineered, and it takes a few moments to drink it all in. The Art Nouveau-inspired wallpaper. The banks of weathered, pieced mirrors. The mismatched light fixtures. The tables about the size of the average American telephone stand. Almost every surface inside Anisette is painted or paneled or papered, yet nothing seems tacky or overwhelming. The initial moments do seem rather theme park in the extremity of the detailing – if the Magic Kingdom ever decided to add a Montmartreland, Anisette would fit in perfectly – but not in a tacky, kitsch way. Yet it is surprising that such a meticulously decorated restaurant could also be so comfortable.

I arrived a good fifteen minutes ahead of our brunch reservation this morning, so I chose to sit at the long zinc bar. I ordered their hot chocolate and pain au lait before my friend, who was running late, arrived. A linen napkin was laid out across the chilly metal surface, then another napkin and flatware were set for me. This is the customary service for bar dining, which is both practical, as the cold metal does not conduct heat from the food, and adds a nice touch. The hot chocolate was fantastic; it is rich but not at all very sweet. As for the pain au lait, it left something to be desired. It did not seem exactly fresh: The texture was a lot like the grainy Mexican pan dulce I have a strong distaste for. It came with an excellent jam (red currant?), orange marmalade, and a wonderful whipped vanilla bean butter than almost made up for the poor choice.

Fifteen minutes after our reservation time, when my friend was still parking, I decided I should move to our table. It was tiny, seemingly barely big enough for two plates. My friend was duly wowed with the place, even with the appropriately European-sized table. She ordered a mimosa, while I ordered a La Blonde from their cocktail menu. One quibble with their cocktail menu is that it leans too heavily on vodka for their signature drinks. While many bar programs are moving away from the flavorless spirit, the vast majority of Anisette’s cocktails are based on it, with only a handful of options of cognac-, gin-, and tequila-based cocktails, one rum-based drink, and nothing featuring a whiskey base. The La Blonde was Lillet Rouge, Lillet Blonde, and Courvoisier. It was decent, but not particularly memorable. One should not expect a strong cocktail program like those at Osteria Mozza, Comme Ça, or The Hungry Cat.

We began with the house pâté, which arrived in a small glass jar closed with a wire clasp. It arrived with four sizable toast slices and a small metal pitcher of cornichons. The pâté was actually more like a liver mousse with a wine gelée on top. The wine flavor was a bit overpowering to the liver, and I was expecting a firmer terrine texture to the very creamy texture. It wasn’t as meaty as I would have liked, but, for ten dollars, it was a fair deal. I had the entrecôte frites with béarnaise sauce; it was cooked to a perfect medium rare as ordered, and my steak knife was presented to me separately wrapped in a napkin as if it was Excalibur. (When our pâté and my steak and fries arrived, the table next to us who were eating rather pedestrian egg dishes said to us about their meal, “I think we ordered the wrong thing.”) The steak is simple – good beef, cooked simply, with the sauce in a small pitcher. My friend said she thought the beef might have been better than what she recently had at Ruth’s Chris. The fries were excellent, too, crisp, lightly salted, presented in a silver cup. My friend had the Belgian waffle with caramel and bananas. This was good, too, especially with more of that excellent vanilla butter.

None of the food was really showy - certainly not as showy as the room it is served in. It wasn’t the best steak I’d ever had, or the best fries, or the best waffle. It was all just really solid, delicious food, and we’d definitely go back. But what was more surprising was how comfortable we found Anisette. We had a corner banquette table, and we were happy just to stay there chatting for, well, quite a long time. It’s easy to do that at Anisette. Unlike Comme Ça, Anisette is not deafeningly loud – at least not at brunch. There was no music pumping through the restaurant, and despite the high ceilings, sound did not reverberate through the room into a deafening din. There is a nice, laid-back energy.

Eventually, the manager came to our table. She kindly offered to buy us a drink if we would relocate to the bar as she needed our table. We had no problem with accepting her offer, so we moved to the bar. My friend told me of a recent meal at Ketchup where she recently was abruptly bumped from her table from her conversation with a friend – no such compensation, they were simply booted from the restaurant. (My reply: “What were you doing at Ketchup in the first place?”) If customers are to be asked to move from their spot prematurely, both the kind tone the manager used and the offer of a complimentary drink were both the way to handle it. We happily returned to the very friendly bar staff who made a L’Anisette for my friend – essentially a vodka-based French mojito – and a Le Canon for me, which had blood orange juice, vodka or gin, and was finished by adding a sidecar of champagne. We also tried a pain au chocolat – good but, again, potentially not the freshest batch. (Breadbar they are not.)

We remained there so long that we began to wonder about desserts, and the bar staff gave their opinions. My friend has to avoid nuts, and I suspected the apple tart she picked for us contained them as French apple tarts often do. They checked for us, and it did – in the base. Learning that there were some surprises in the desserts, the bartender brought the pastry chef down for us, and he walked us through the dessert menu to tell us exactly which items did and did not have nuts. We finally chose one of the bartenders’ recommendations, the île flottante, which was prepared with the rose pralines on the side (for me). The sweetness of the vanilla crème anglaise on the bottom was offset by the floating island, which is a big puff of lightly sweetened whipped egg white. It was excellent, especially with the rose pralines. It’s great to see a brasserie that has their dessert program putting out great sweets – unlike Comme Ça, where brought-in desserts are beyond an afterthought.

One diner at the bar was reading as he ate a shrimp cocktail and profiteroles. Others were chatting leisurely - easily as long as we did. The crowd’s dress was casual in the extreme, and the mood was relaxed and happy, as a brasserie at the beach should be. Anisette's Santa Monica location likely gives it the more relaxed feeling it has against many other new restaurants; I imagine that, at night, Anisette manages to avoid the downright punishing scene Comme Ça cultivated when it opened. The waitstaff at our table was efficient but not suffocating. The bar staff was engaging and helpful. It is so easy to wile away an afternoon at the bar, ordering drinks and eating dessert, chatting to your friend, watching the absinthe service down the bar (complete with fountain!), and just enjoying yourself. My friend and I both lamented the fact that Anisette is not in our respective neighborhoods, and yet we were both thankful that it wasn’t as it would be too tempting to spend our evenings or weekends hanging out there. It has a really nice low-key feel. Alain Giraud himself bid us goodbye.

I already look forward to another visit to Monsieur Giraud's Montmartreland.

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    prschouten RE: Woolsey Jun 29, 2008 08:12 AM

    Thanks for the great review! Having just returned from Paris I cannot wait to try all of the offerings for myself.

    I noticed that they are quite booked up (I just tried to book a table at 8 on July 19 and could only get 6:15!), do you think one could just walk in on a weekend and sit/eat at the bar?

    2 Replies
    1. re: prschouten
      Woolsey RE: prschouten Jun 29, 2008 09:09 AM

      You're wanting to go on a Saturday, which is a big eating out night there in Santa Monica. We were winding down around 7:00, and crowds were gathering at some places - we walked past Border Grill, which was getting packed. Anisette should be the same, with a bar full of diners and people waiting for their tables and impromptu diners. On a Tuesday or a February weekend, eating at the bar would likely not be a problem. The bar had plenty of space during the afternoon. But at prime time on a July weekend night, even the bar will be a squeeze, especially at the most popular new eatery by the beach.

      Dining at the bar is nice, though. In fact, it may be more comfortable for some than navigating those tiny café tables as it seems a bit more spacios. Linen napkins cover the metal bar surface; salt, pepper, and a pot of mustard is laid out for the diner along with the napkin and cutlery. It's a good way to dine at Anisette.

      1. re: prschouten
        hrhboo RE: prschouten Jul 1, 2008 12:20 PM

        I haven't found it difficult to find seats at the bar during the week, when I go on the earlier side. Going at the weekend will undoubtedly involve a long wait.

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        exilekiss RE: Woolsey Jun 29, 2008 10:19 AM

        Excellent review Woolsey! :) Love your detailed descriptions of the environment.

        You hit the nail on the head, IMHO: Anisette is just a wonderful low-key, relaxing Brasserie; a place you want to revisit again and again for its charm and good food.

        I recommend you try their Dinner Menu as well; some lovely items (I wrote about them on Chowhound and my blog if you're interested).

        1. b
          brandygirl RE: Woolsey Jun 29, 2008 10:22 AM

          Great review. I have to ask, how was your Le Canon? I was torn between that and the Pear Margarita, and the latter won.

          When we were there, we had to move tables in the middle of our meal, and for that they comped our entire meal--way beyond the call of duty, but they earned my undying loyalty. They had to remove mirrors from the wall behind us in a hurry. One of the owners, Keith, was the one dealing with this and he was so great. He apologized profusely and fully explained their problem. It really was not that big a deal to us, and the other diners didn't seem put off by it either. But he proved to me that they really do care about their customers.

          1 Reply
          1. re: brandygirl
            Woolsey RE: brandygirl Jun 29, 2008 10:59 AM

            My friend and I tried each other's drinks at the bar, and I said to her, "You got the better drink." She replied, "Yeah, I did." (Unfortunately, she ordered first.) The Le Canon is rather bland, frankly. I think I chose it as it supposedly had cognac, but, if so, I couldn't tell. In my recollection, it seems to be more of a vodka-based drink. It was just a pale citrus-tasting drink with champagne added. Nothing I'd order again. But then, their cocktails really aren't memorable at all. The bar staff was complaining amongst themselves when I arrived that no one was ordering cocktails; it was all wine, wine, wine. (I smirked a bit at the funny homophone.) Perhaps if the cocktails were finessed and given a bit of oomph with use of whiskey, bitters, and richer liqueurs, people might be more inclined to indulge in the cocktails, which, right now, are rather limp.

            It's good to see that the owners and staff are so dedicated to customer service. Even beyond good food, a good atmosphere and good service are key to building a long-lasting restaurant, especially in neighborhoods with a lot of residential and repeat clientele like Santa Monica.

          2. hrhboo RE: Woolsey Jun 29, 2008 11:20 AM

            I was there for brunch yesterday too. We started with a blueberry muffin and a croissant, both very fresh and buttery. Dining companion had the Benedict, which was superlative. I had the Feuillette with soft scrambled eggs and crab. We shared the waffles for dessert.

            I think that Anisette has the best bloody marys in town. Between us we tried all 6 and my favorite is still the Farmer's Market bloody. The tequila/jalapeno/cilantro one was very good too, although a bit much for me first thing in the morning. We made the mistake of ordering the mustard/blue cheese one while eating the waffles - not a good combo. Would have gone beautifully with your steak though!

            2 Replies
            1. re: hrhboo
              Woolsey RE: hrhboo Jun 29, 2008 11:28 AM

              How was the Bonjour Anisette? That was the only one calling to me; Bloody Marys have never been a favorite drink of mine, but I sort of regret not trying that over the La Blonde.

              1. re: Woolsey
                hrhboo RE: Woolsey Jun 29, 2008 11:32 AM

                Funny, I was torn between ordering La Blonde over a bloody too!

                It was beautifully made and my companion loved it. I'm not a huge fan of the flavor of anise and it wasn't overpowering. It's definitely worth a try although of the 6 the farmer's market version is the most appealing to my personal taste.

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