I traveled to France only vicariously, first through my parents, then through my sister and my friends, and most recently through my oldest daughter, Nina. They all brought me presents from the land of Gaul: little crystal bottles of perfume, a roll of green silk that became my eighth grade graduation dance dress; gloriously stinky cheeses; tiny pewter Eiffel towers; reprints of Toulouse-Lautrec’s art; minuscule ornate boxes hiding three perfect truffles; an airplane-size bottle of Veuve-Clicquot.
I embraced their stories and pored through the photos, trying to absorb the magic by osmosis, imagining my own feet hitting the streets of all those places that became so familiar while I spent hours reading the French classics. One of these days I’ll visit France in person and I am convinced it will be one of those marvelous “deja vu” experiences that would prevent me from feeling like a tourist.
In the meantime, I’ll continue my France-by-proxy existence by frequenting one of my favorite South Bay restaurants, Dominique’s Kitchen, which is celebrating its first anniversary this weekend. I hate to lament the passage of time again and again, but it truly feels like a fleeting instant from the first time I noticed the bright yellow board with the restaurant’s name hovering above the PCH. Since then, I stopped by a few times on their MÃ©nage Ã Trois Mondays happy hour, and each time I felt as if I were coming home.
French restaurants have a reputation in America of being too expensive, too fancy, and too intimidating. The owners Dominique and Liza are trying to break the stereotype and change that widely accepted, but wrong opinion. They came up with a concept of a casual restaurant that would offer classic French dishes at affordable prices in a friendly and welcoming atmosphere. They yearn to demystify some of the more exotic fares and invite everyone to feel at home at their cozy, warm place.
Throughout the celebratory weekend, chef Dominique will be preparing dishes that feature snails, as an adventurous and fun ingredient very much underused in American culinary traditions. They were pleasantly surprised by a positive response from their customers who genuinely loved their classic escargot served during Mondays’ happy hour, that they felt confident in offering the public many other ways to prepare this ubiquitous French food.
Chef Dominique Theval grew up in the outskirts of Paris and his mother made the escargot maybe once a month. The snails from Burgundy came already detached from their shells, and after they were sauteed in garlic and butter, they were placed back into the shells and smothered by the insanely rich, flavorful, and yet so simple sauce that just begged for a heel of crusty, French bread.
This classic approach to snails is hard to beat and I am glad I get to enjoy it every time I show up for their happy hour. But in the weeks to come, there will be many different dishes featuring escargot aimed at broadening the culinary horizons of the loyal patrons.
A few days ago I had a chance to try some of those dishes with several other media people and food bloggers. We really did not know one another, but as we sampled chef Dominique’s creations and sipped wine, it felt as if we were in a casual, street restaurant somewhere in France, surrounded by friends, relaxed after another day at work. Yes, the snails were the main attraction, and as a bunch, we were not the connoisseurs; but we were curious and adventurous. And we definitely enjoyed many incarnations presented to us.
If you are in the area, stop by the restaurant for a complimentary glass of champagne, a chance to win a prize, or just to hang out and nosh on some of the most delicious and affordable French cuisine in southern California. I know I will be there on Monday, and many Mondays to come!