I first visited Café Pierre thirty-five years ago, just after they had opened as a modest creperie with a friendly fellow named Guy explaining the unfamiliar dishes. The place was an anomaly in our not-very-cosmopolitan town then, an authentic bit of Europe, and adventurous diners streamed in. As the years went by it expanded and went upscale, and more complex items appeared on the menu. Eventually the crepes that had been the foundation of the restaurant disappeared, and the menu went through flirtations with Latin and Italian cuisine before reverting to a strong focus on Southern French flavors. Through it all, Guy Gabriele remained at his post, welcoming old friends and coaxing diners to try new things.
The cuisine at Café Pierre now may be new to many Americans, but it is very old – Café Pierre offers rustic items from Provence that are seldom seen even on Parisian menus. We started a recent meal with three of these specialties – brandade, a dip made from salt cod, potato and garlic, merguez sausages with chickpea fritters, and a beet and cheese salad. Codfish have never lived in the seas around Southern Europe but have been a staple there since the Middle Ages; the dried fish was easily storable, and in the days that the Catholic church demanded believers eat fish on Fridays, it was always available. To make brandade the dried fish is powdered, rehydrated, then mixed with mashed potato, olive oil, ad breadcrumbs. The texture is like hummus, the flavor earthy and bold – if you don’t like fish to taste like fish this isn’t the dish for you, but if you are feeling adventurous you might want to try it. We were dining with someone who had never tasted it before and was a bit wary, and he found it interesting and finished almost half of the plateful.
The merguez was interesting not only for the meat – four homemade sausages the size of large breakfast links, spicy but not hot – but also for the accompaniment. These were the garbanzo bean fritters that share their name with a pivotal restaurant in California dining history: panisse. (The restaurant Chez Panisse pioneered California cuisine, but was named after a character in a book whose name translates as mister garbanzo fritter.) The only garbanzo fritters most Americans have had are falafels, but the flavor of panisse is different, since most of what you taste in a falafel is spices. These had a mild flavor and were almost like hush puppies or corncakes, and they were a nice pairing with the sausages and bed of chopped tomato with herbs.
The beet and goat cheese salad is a traditional dish that has gone mainstream, but it is worth going back to the source to see how it’s done in France. Here the red and yellow beets and creamy cheese were joined by pickled onion, which added a fine tart crunch to the mélange. If you’re intimidated by the brandade, grilled octopus (delicious!), or tripe, or you just feel like an old favorite, this is a safe bet.
We paired our starters with glasses of wine – a pleasant Sancerre, a rich, berryish Lirac – and a cocktail called an Old Habana. Café Pierre offers a menu of classic cocktails, and this mix of rum, lime, mint, bitters, and Champagne was a taste of the 1930’s, subtle and exotic with a nice kick.
For dinner we decided on braised rabbit, roasted Scottish salmon, and pork ribs sous vide style. Sous vide, the method of cooking at low heat in a water bath, is a modern invention that to a large degree replicates the flavor and texture of traditional slow-cooked dishes; it’s new technology to achieve a classic effect. In this case the pork ribs were meltingly tender but not mushy and had a concentrated flavor, something much more than a vehicle for sauce and spices. I have had wild boar before and there was a little of that more assertive flavor here.
The salmon was perfectly done, crispy skin and all, but the base of vegetables really made the dish. The artichokes, onions, and fava beans were in a wine-based sauce and paired perfectly with the fish – alternating bites of one and the other was heavenly. The rabbit was nicely paired too – the huge chunks of tender bunny were on a bed of homemade gnocchi with wild mushrooms in a veal stock. Rabbit is not an assertive meat; the old “tastes like chicken” line is often deployed to describe it. That’s not wildly wrong if you think of a tender, unusually lean chicken with slightly sweet meat, and if you haven’t tried it before this is a good place to start.
We finished with a specialty of the house: hazelnut cream-stuffed profiteroles with a pot of chocolate sauce on the side. I have had the tiramisu and bread pudding here, both very good, but the profiteroles are my favorite, a perfect companion to coffee or one final glass of wine.
Café Pierre is reasonably priced for what they offer – figure on fifty to sixty dollars per person unless you go crazy on their wine list, which is easy to do given the selection. The restaurant is a very rare example of uncompromising French cuisine in greater Los Angeles, one that has been under the personal ownership and management of a living legend in South Bay cuisine.
The time to visit is now, because Guy Gabriele is making plans to, as he says, “turn the restaurant over to a new generation.” His daughter, an accomplished restaurateur in her own right, will be taking over the management and may make some changes, but Guy promises that he will still drop by regularly to see old friends and enjoy good food. He has earned a vacation, several of them in fact, but Manhattan Beach will be a little poorer without the daily oversight of a man who as weathered trends and stayed true to his vision.
Cafe Pierre is at 317 Manhattan Beach Boulevard in Manhattan Beach. Open daily for dinner only, street or public lot parking, full bar. Corkage $25, wheelchair access OK. Website a cafepierre.com, phone 310-545-5252.