It was raining; a gratifying change for the dehydrated city of Los Angeles. This didn't stop us from walking to our dinner date, umbrella in hand.
Petit Trois is tucked away within an unsuspecting strip mall in Hancock Park, next to a dry cleaners and 24-hour donut shop. The sign of its former inhabitant, "Tasty Thai," still hangs there, disappointing any passersby with an appetite for cheap Thai.
The restaurant is the little sister of the infamous Trois Mec, which hides next door in the space formerly occupied by Rafallo’s pizza. The pizza sign remains unchanged of course. At the creamy center of both restaurants is Chef Ludo Lefebvre of LudoBites and most recently, ABC's The Taste.
Arriving at night was like the clock striking midnight in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. The scene had been one of rain and gloom, of neon Yum Yum donut signs and wet asphault. We opened the bistro door and squeezed inside. And in an instant, all had been changed.
The restaurant was alive, packed with patrons of every age, pulsing with conversation. The smell of butter wanderd through the air and the sounds of clattering kitchenware buzzed in our ears. One women wore a beret. My date joked she had forgotten hers.
Everything about the space exudes warmth and whimsy, full of dark wood and glowy light that dances off the white marble countertops. Petit Trois is the epitome of an open kitchen. The kitchen is nestled behind a long eight seat bar, which accounts for much of the restaurant’s seating. The floors are black and white checkered tiles, an unapologetic throwback to countless neighborhood French bistros of the past. But even distinctly new concepts like that of an open kitchen are somehow made more familiar here. A line of silver pots and pans playfully hang from the ceiling like they would in your family’s kitchen, ready to be called upon by any of the chefs working beneath them.
We had been teleported to a bustling bistro in Paris. It was pure magic.
We noticed there wasn't a host stand. But seconds later, our maitre d' appeared out of thin air, like he'd been waiting for our arrival. He eyed us with a smile that said you're in for something great.
The wait was forty five minutes. We made our way to the pocket-sized bar in the corner. She ordered something with gin and grapefruit and I had something with bourbon and rosemary. Upon asking our bartender Devin about one of Ludo's YouTube videos on omelette making, we learned that Chef only stops by the restaurant on weeknights. Sorry, we'd have to come back if we wanted to see him.
We indecisively studied the twelve plate menu. A waitress overheard us wondering about the first item, gougères. We were only able to make out a few words before the room’s conversations carried her voice away: gruyère…only one more left.
A gruyère what? -- never mind. We told her we’d take it.
The size of the space is a bit of an allusion, seemingly doubled by a series of large arc-shaped mirrors that line the side wall. They conveniently reflect the action of the kitchen back to those seated in front of them, so that every patron can feel like they scored front row seats at the culinary picture show.
And yet we still crossed our fingers for kitchen seats. Our wish came true.
It turns out gougères are large, round popover-like pastries loaded with gruyère. It was heavenly: airy in texture but rich in flavor. We looked up from our first few bites only to see the quiet arrival of a man in black, his jacket wet from the rain. But it wasn’t until he moved behind the bar to talk to Devin that we realized who it was: Chef Ludo. But it so wasn’t a weeknight.
Ludo made his way into the kitchen, poking and prodding at the prep station and plated dishes. He picked up a raw frite and shook it meticulously, then had word with the chef moving them from the fridge. The boss was in, and he wasn't pleased.
We're not those people, we said. We don't need to meet him. Watching him work was more than enough. We returned to our menus and made a mutual decision on our meal, until suddenly we felt a hand on our backs.
It was Ludo.
We told him it was our first time at the restaurant, though he probably knew because of the excitement on our faces, the kind of excitement a small child has when she’s handed the cookie dough spoon for the first time. We inquired about foie gras, which he had announced just a few days earlier would return to his restaurants. He thought about it carefully and told us to come back next Thursday or Friday. We will, chef, we will.
And then he was gone. I turned my head back to the kitchen and watched chocolate cake being plated in front of me, dolloped with hand-whisked whipped cream, caramel sauce and cocoa powder. My mouth dropped. I wanted it badly, but I had already promised my date we'd order the napoleon.
I only had a moment to wallow. Because the next course had arrived.
The French onion soup didn’t take itself too seriously. Its broth and melted cheese happily dripped over the sides of the pristine white bowl, continuing down onto the plate beneath it. We soon learned the irony of its imperfect presentation: its taste was perfect in every way, both sweet and rich.
I love watching food prepared in front of me, wondering which items are seconds away from being all mine. Sous chef Stephanie was stationed in front of us for most of meal, such that we got to watch her shift effortlessly from steak tartar to apple endive salad, pan-fried sole to omelette work. The only constant was our drooling.
As Stephanie made the next omelette, we had a gut feeling that our time had come. It had. The omelette was unlike any other I've tasted. It's a contradiction: light in texture, like fondled scrambled eggs in the shape of an omelette, while also heavy in flavor. It's made with Boursin cheese and topped with chives. The accompanying side salad came with a creamy dijon vinaigrette and was out of this world (said no one ever about a side salad).
The steak frites brought me back to Avignon, France where two years ago I enjoyed the classic dish for the first time. The heap of frites were thin and oily and sitting in a pool of blood. Trust me, that’s exactly the way they should be.
The napoleon arrived. Architecturally it didn’t seem sound – paper thin layers of pastry holding up massive layers of thick, creamy custard. We would have pondered the logistics of its construction more fully, but we didn’t care. We were living our weekend to the fullest in Paris by way of Hancock Park. And drunk on good wine (a Carignan, recommended by our man Devin. Shout out to his fragile tortoise shell spectacles).
As we waited for the bill, we eyed chef de cuisine Sydney Hunter. Of all the kitchen’s characters perhaps Sydney is the most intriguing. Sporting dark round glasses and an unforgettable mustache, his moves are quick and yet utterly methodical. Though we were stuffed to capacity, we were intrigued by the wild sole meunière he was creating within arms reach.
It wasn’t long before he noticed that he had an audience in us, though he seemed nonetheless delighted by it. He was quick to foster our sole education, explaining how he flours the fish to give the outside texture, slightly undercooks it, lets it rest, then debones it. It's served with pilaf and brown butter lemon meunière. He started to describe the meunière, only to quickly stop himself and ask if we wanted to try some. Hell yes. He handed us a tiny condiment cup filled half-way. We sipped it, like some sort of sick digestif. Based solely on that one gluttonous sip, we made an executive decision: we'd order it next time.
We paid our bill and reluctantly climbed back through the wardrobe, instantly returning to the wet, gloomy sidewalk of the L.A. strip mall. We staggered home, our bellies full but flying. Blame it on the wine, blame it on all the butter, but even the rain seemed touched by a bit of Petit Trois’ magic. Rarely does a meal live up to the hype. Petit Trois did.
We will be back.