When it comes to the act of communal dining, there are generally three different reactions.
Some react with glee, thinking, “Sharing plates means I get to order and eat lots of different things!”
Others react with relief, thinking, “Thank God I have someone to share this piece of chocolate cake with – I couldn’t possibly eat the whole thing myself!” (I have no experience with this.)
A different set, the possessive set, reacts with horror. “I have to share my duck confit with three other people?! No fair – I want it all to myself!”
While I usually tend toward the third reaction and desire to slice someone’s hand off if they try to take anything from my plate, during a recent hosted media dinner at Le Saint Amour, a classic Parisian brasserie in Culver City, I found myself having an experience unlike I’ve ever had before. The act of sharing the luxurious dishes with the four people sitting around me at our little corner of the banquet table engendered a response of pure joy. Their presence enlivened every bite I took -- elevating Chef Bruno Herve Commereuc's refined French fare to a different level of deliciousness because they were there, smiling, laughing and enjoying those bites with me.
When our first course, the pristine Kumamoto Oysters with Champagne Mignonette, arrived at the table, my companions were delighted (not disturbed) to hear that it would be my first raw oyster. They eagerly walked me through the raw-oyster-eating process, instructing me to make sure the oyster itself was loose from the shell before dressing it with a touch of lemon and a splash of the shallot-scented mignonette. They watched in rapt anticipation as I lifted the delicate oyster to my lips and slurped it from the shell, blasting my tongue with a shot of cool, fresh ocean brine. Cheers nearly erupted when I looked up with a big grin.
They were, however, quick to inform me that not all raw oysters are as delightful as the ones at Le Saint Amour, and that they can often be overpowered by an overassertive mignonette.
Notes were also passed as we shared the Charcuterie platter, also prepared by Chef Herve Commereuc, who has been consulting with Chef Walter Manzke, formerly the head chef at Church & State, to refine his menu.
"I like the Country Pate and Toulouse Venison Sausage the best," said one.
A vote for the Duck Rillette was voiced by another.
"I think I need to try another taste to be sure..." announced a third, reaching for the communal plate to siphon off another bite of the neatly presented Galantine avec Pistachio.
It was all very pleasant, but our behavior was still somewhat reigned in by social convention at this juncture in our evening. When presented with the individual-sized Escargots en Croute, we tentatively used our two-pronged forks to poke at the the thick crust of buttery pastry to free the garlic-saturated escargot in the base of each ramekin. Did we dare use our fingers to smash the pastry into the cup so we could sop up the buttery sauce at the bottom? The question lingered unasked on each of our tongues.
By the time the Moules Marinieres and Frites arrived, this politeness had vanished. As we heaped the supple-fleshed mussels onto our plates and dredged the crisp fries in the accompanying garlic aioli, our excitement for the food overcame our ability to maintain social grace. Fingers were licked, seconds were administered, and bread was requested and then commandeered as a vehicle to consume the thyme-scented, cream-based white wine broth served with the mussels.
"When you dip, I dip, we dip," I found myself half-singing to my dining companion on the left as I held the serving bowl so both of us could saturate the warm pieces of baguette with the lush sauce.
When the serving spoon fell into the bowl moments later, we all looked at it with lust.
"The happiest spoon that there ever was." We agreed, before using our fingers to free the last two mussels from their savory bath.
This excitement was mirrored when the Moroccan Merquez arrived. We urged each other to take more of the potently spiced sausage and fluffy peaks of raisin-studded couscous -- ironically one of our lightest bites of the evening. On this plate impact is achieved through the quality and seasoning of each component rather than through a luxurious robe of butter or cream.
Decadence reappeared with the Boeuf Bourguignon, Seared Black Bass with artichokes, and the Boudin Noir, blood sausage with braised red cabbage and a sweet, warm bacon vinaigrette. The Bouef Bourguignon, a traditional interpretation of the dish with red-wine braised beef cheeks, carrots, caramelized bacon, and gnocchi, is like a more developed, sophisticated version of the ubiquitous short ribs. The secret is in the sauce -- a deep, muddy gravy that is clearly thickened with a roux of flour and butter.
The intensity of flavors in the dish make it the standout entree of the three, but we were universally fond of the fresh artichokes accompanying the flaky white fish, and found the sweetness of the cabbage a prescient match to help cut the richness of the blood sausage. Upon revealing to my dining companions that, again, I was in virginal territory with the boudin noir, they were, again, quick to inform me that not all blood sausage tastes as mellow and refined as the one at Le Saint Amour.
We were anything but mellow (or refined) by the time dessert was shepherded onto the table three hours after our arrival at the restaurant. Our eyes were initially enraptured with the nicely executed, but fairly standard Chocolate Souffle with Banana Ice Cream, Salted Caramel and Peanuts, but the Lemon Mousse with Tangerine Sorbet and Blood Orange Granita ultimately snuck in to capture our hearts. Despite the richness of the food we'd gluttonously consumed prior, our spoons attacked the lemon mousse with conviction. While at first sight, the dish appears mundane, all the components and tart, sweet and tangy flavors are in perfect balance. The refreshing granita and sorbet are the ideal foils for the budino-like mousse beneath them -- this was a dessert we all wanted to eat more of.
And, when the diners at the end of the table were too full to finish theirs, we did.
As we reluctantly pushed away from the table and hugged each other good bye, it struck me that the name of the restaurant was especially fitting given our evening together. The thoughtfully-prepared and classically-presented French fare brought more than bulging bellies and buttery fingers into our little corner of the table. Sharing every plate and every garlic-aioli-dipped fry brought joy and mutual appreciation into our hearts.
Le Saint Amour is a place to fall in love -- with one's dining companions, with the Moules Frites and with the act (or art) of communal dining.
Le Saint Amour
9725 Culver Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232
For more on Le Saint Amour, check out Neil at Food Marathon's perspective of our evening.
Upcoming Event: This Sunday, February 27th, Le Saint Amour is inviting its diners to watch the Academy Awards with a bit of French flare. Guests can enjoy a glass of complimentary Hibiscus Flower Champagne and cheesy Gougères, while they cheer on their favorite flicks and nitpick over their least favorite gowns. Reservations are recommended.