Le Pain Quotidien's Uncommon Good
Ben Calderwood Le Pain's warm welcome
The Santa Monica PQ is an excellent place to collect an espresso and brioche after shopping the nearby Wednesday and Saturday farmers markets. (If you glimpse the special overfilled pâte à choux--resembling Pac-Man with a mouth jammed full of pastry cream--abandon the brioche!) You'll enjoy a superb cup of coffee and a unique sensation--call it autonomy--that comes from breaching the Starbucks bubble. Which is funny, because Le Pain Quotidien is a chain with operations on five continents. There are 12 locations in Southern California alone. Yet this "bakery and communal table" concept from Belgian boulanger Alain Coumont betrays a respect for the local, the seasonal and the idiosyncratic that is terribly unbecoming of a multinational dining conglomerate.
Beyond the bakery counter and the weathered armoires stocked with house brand pantry staples--organic confitures, whole bean coffee, shakers of grey salt--you'll encounter an airy dining room with simple wood tables and walls the color of pottery glaze. For breakfast, there are steel cut oats, coddled omelets and seasonal fruit. For lunch, a rainbow of soups and Mediterranean-inspired salads, or a cheese plate supplemented with artisanal charcuterie.
Inevitably you will order Le Pain's tartine, a geometric composition of wheat bread, toppings and a spray of greens served on a flat platter that looks like an artist's palette. Try the ricotta, studded with bits of mission fig and tomato, or the aged gruyère, with wedges of tomato and mango and a dazzling trio of composed mustards. It's worth noting that virtually everything in the building, from the au naturel dishes to the reclaimed wood of the communal table, is preceded by green-speak: organic, sustainable, raw, biodynamic. You can feel your carbon footprint shrinking just reading the menu. This is easy to dismiss in a metropolis as conflicted as Los Angeles, but a review of the company website substantiates the adjectives. Skeptics are urged to take home a baguette. Baked fresh daily, these tender loaves--ideal for garlic bread or pain au chocolat--contain nothing more than organic flour, salt, water and yeast. When, a mere 24 hours later, any remainder is as hard as a police baton, you'll know Le Pain Quotidien's eco-bistro cuisine is for real.
Ben Calderwood Decoding the tartine
Le Pain Quotidien: 316 Santa Monica Boulevard, Santa Monica, CA 90401; 310-393-6800. Open daily 8am-7pm.