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Jan 31, 2013 04:15 PM

Cheval again, again

So it's not Cheval Blanc anymore, but Cheval Bistro. Those Smith guys just will not stop fiddling with stuff, will they? The escargot now come packed with so much parsley that the little plate looks like it's mounded with lawn clippings, though the snails themselves, when you finally dig one out, are as chewy and flavorless as last time. At least they're back to being generous with the bread, and good bread it is too, as is the butter. Definitely not Ralphs store brand.

We were there last night to celebrate my having done another lap around, but mostly as an excuse for Mrs. O's mom to have some more of the moules frite (mussels and fries) that she loves so much. The place was packed - it's Dine L.A. season again, which I'd forgotten about - so not only did we not get seated when we arrived early, we learned that the occupants of "our" table had decided to order dessert. There was banquette seating, though, which Mom wanted anyway because it's kinder to old bones, so we took it. Just as we'd decided our server was a jewel and everything would be swell, she returned with our cocktails and the grim news that they were out of mussels. Mom said,"I'm leaving!" and if she'd been driving she might have. They were also out of the onglet, which I'd kinda had my eye on. And it wasn't even eight o'clock yet …

But Mrs. O's margarita and my Hendrick's martini were perfect, as was the bread we've mentioned, and the server talked the parent into taking the seafood platter, with her choice of doubling up one item in lieu of the missing mussels. She chose oysters. I probably should have taken another shot at the rabbit, to see if it had improved, but decided that nobody screws up Boeuf à la Bourguignonne so I'd have that, my only real mistake all day. Well, the snails I had first weren't exactly a triumph, either. Mrs. O found her usual vegetarian escape route, the beet salad. I ordered a cotes du Rhone that was very good, Mrs. O had another margarita, and Mom stuck with water.

The seafood platter got her all smiley again, and a little taken aback by the size of those prawns. The oysters were large, too, and she found them rather disappointing and told me to help myself. I had a prawn, too, but she was not sharing the clams, which were apparently the prize offering. My beef, when it eventually arrived - why does service slow down when the crowd gets smaller? - was an island of puréed potato in a sea of inky sauce, some dead-black chunks of beef and some onions and mushrooms. The sauce was a fiercely reduced thing, the opposite of my previous rabbit's, in that it had maybe twice as much flavor as it really needed. The meat was fall-apart tender but dry; I wonder how you do that? The potatoes, however, were perfect, buttery and smooth without being starchy, and wrapping my less-than-perfect morsels in a cloak of purée made everything much more palatable. As for the beet salad, it was a known quantity to Mrs. O and she enjoyed it as she always does. We wrapped things up with another round of drinks, and a not very generous cheese platter. We made the waiter who delivered it repeat the cheeses' names three times and never understood a word of it, only that there was a goat, a blue, and something else. There were also some cherries in a light syrup and candied walnuts, and it was all quite good and gone in a flash.

The bite for all of this, with tax and 20% tip, was $186 and change, or $62 each. This is not close enough to our comfort zone to become regulars when we're picking up the tab, but on the brighter side is Mom's assertion that she still wanted some of those mussels and we'd just have to try again soon. Stay tuned, folks …

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  1. Despite being a fan of other Smith Bros. establishments (Parkway Grill & Smitty's), nothing I've ever read about their Cheval-du-jour establishment has made me want to try it, and certainly not at the prices they charge (do you recall the prices of the booze?). Your review didn't really change that, although it is curious that Mom wants to return...or maybe she really just wants some moules frites.

    6 Replies
    1. re: Jack Flash

      And if moules frites is the only issue, I can only hope that there are other places in the 'dena that serve at least comparable quality and quantity.
      If not, maybe it's time for some competition on that front!

      Having been a long-time fan of both the Parkway and ACHouse, I have felt both have fallen behind over the last 5 years.
      Never particularly liked Smitty's - waaaay too noisy.

      1. re: carter

        She has not had them anywhere else in Pasadena that I know of. She's had them in my presence at Massilia in Monrovia and at Taix, and liked them both places, but she's not up for car journeys of such length anymore, and Cheval is at most fifteen minutes from where she lives.

        To tell the truth, in her opinion the only way to screw up mussels (assuming you're competent) is to use those green-lipped ones. The hard part is the frites, and the Cheval guys have that one down cold.

        My beef with the Smiths is what I perceive to be an emphasis on efficiency over authenticity. The rabbit in their lapin à la moutarde is not braised with mustard and then finished in the sauce as the dish requires, but precooked some other way - I'm guessing sous vide - and then combined with the sauce in a covered casserole to finish. So much more efficient, and so wrong. And I'm still pissed about the bus guy taking my sauce away, two years ago.

        1. re: Will Owen

          One thing that really grinds my gears is the absolute lack, in Pasadena, of a good, bustling, moderately priced brasserie. I mean, it really shouldn't be that difficult.

          Looking at some local menus, I see that Haven Gastropub (never been) has mussels. They also have fries. They do not have moules frites as such, but...worth exploring, perhaps?

        2. re: carter

          Maybe I'm getting old (42), but I find ALL restaurants to be too loud these days.

          I've had good luck at Smitty's for the most part; however, I've dined solo on about half my visits, and the noise is much less of an issue if you're not trying to have a conversation. As for the food, it's been cooked properly and service has been efficient and professional. Plus, I'm a fan of the house-made potato chips served gratis at the bar. No mussels, though.

          1. re: Jack Flash

            When we were waiting by the front door, there was one of those groups of 30- and 40-somethings who'd forgotten about Indoor Voices standing in the bar area, and I greatly feared they were waiting for a table, but they were just there for happy hour. I have to say that Cheval has been commendably quiet when we've been there. Sitting at our banquette table the other night between two other groups, we could hear little of their conversation and managed ours quite easily. I might have been the loud one when talking to Mom, as she is rather deaf.

            My favorite for calm, however, is Akira; nice chamber music played at a level where you can listen if you want to, but can talk over it in normal tones. I like the food, too, but I can't afford it.

        3. re: Jack Flash

          Jack, the cocktails run around $13 and my wine was $10/glass, not out of line at all, especially for top-shelf liquor.

          Mom likes the place because it's not noisy, the service is good, and (as she found out last night) if what she wants is unavailable they'll have something else she wants. And, as I mention below, the fact that it's close, and I can drop her and Mrs. O at the door and then park, is very important to someone with an early bedtime. Plus she really does want moules frites.