Arguably, different time zones use different measures of time. For instance, a New York minute is much shorter than an L.A. minute, or a cell phone-anytime minute. Regardless of location, when a restaurant thrives for 18 years, that's a feather in its cap. That feather is huge, indeed, if the establishment can stake that claim in the rapidly shape-shifting, restaurant-centric L.A. scene. That is exactly why we must stick a huge feather in the La Bohème chapeau. They're in their 19th year of operation -- an imposing feat in a city whose historic buildings, as Steve Martin irreverently and hilariously exaggerated in “LA Story”, are only around 25-years old.
This easy-to-find eatery is nestled into a storefront along L.A.’s well traveled, and world famous (thank you, Sheryl Crow) Santa Monica Boulevard, in the West Hollywood section. Kozo Hasegawa, the owner and motivational force behind La Bohème, is a mover and shaker not only in the L.A. restaurant scene but also in his native Japan where he owns seventy restaurants. His L.A. staples include Gonpachi, Monsoon Café (in Santa Monica), and La Bohème.
As she did at Hasegawa’s other L.A. restaurants, designer Margaret O’Brien has created a mesmerizing space, at once opulent and comfortable. Five grand chandeliers suspend from the high, wooden-planked ceiling into the sunken-level dining space below, and softly illuminate ruby-red walls punctuated by two huge open fireplaces. The high walls make for low-decibel dining, which is another plus that enhances the intimate ambiance. Along two of the walls there is a contiguous series of curtained alcoves, each one with a central table paralleled along three of its sides by a plush leather banquette; each alcove also sports a beaded curtain to allow diners the option of. Cantilevered directly above the main-floor alcoves is a balcony lined with several additional dining alcoves. These balcony alcoves sport an even more intimate look. Each one is lushly appointed with white chairs and affords a marvelous panorama of the dining area below, while ruby-red curtains drape down each side. Besides these seating options, there’s also an outdoor patio area sexily illuminated and enticing, and framed with ubiquitous flowers and greenery. The patio is also used as a segregated space for private parties. Guests rapidly discover that, despite being engulfed in lavish digs, pomposity and pretention are absent.
Appreciation begins at the hostess station, where Michele greets each guest with a sincere smile. The entire staff is down-to-earth, knowledgeable, and accommodating. Each member skillfully shares insights and views on the restaurant, food preparation, personal preferences, nuances of the various dishes, etc. In a nutshell, La Bohème fields a team of professionals that cheerfully conveys a sense of joy in its métier, as well as a refreshing sense of accountability and pride in its workplace. Just as the play’s the thing in theater, food and libations are the thing in gastronomy. And under the leadership of Executive Chef Christine Banta, La Bohème shines in these all-important categories.
The wine list has considerable reach: a couple dozen wines, mostly from California, are offered by the glass, and some 90 bottles are available either by the bottle or by the half-bottle. While many of the selections are Californian, the list also features several imports from France and Australia. Besides wine, there are several interesting signature cocktails. I recommend the Cantaloupe Martini: a liberating mixture of Absolut Mandarin vodka and melon liqueur splashed with orange juice and lime juice.
Menu choices sweep through an impressive swath of culinary terrain, with a decided lean toward Asian and French traditions. Among the appetizers are the Steamed Chicken-Mushroom Dumplings -- five plump coquille-shaped dumplings on a large white oblong dish. Golden-browned at the center, lucid white at the tips, the tender pockets of dumpling waft steamy sweetness from a fluffy, colorful bed of orange carrot strands and green watercress. The natural juices and crunch of the veggies complement the smooth texture of the dumplings as they release their earthy payload of chicken and mushroom.
Similarly, Maryland Crab Cakes browned and clad in angelically light bread batter arrive almost filler-free. The binder is not only practically invisible, it’s also practically non-existent. Each bite brings only the taste of sweet crab meat. The accompanying spicy house-made remoulade stokes each yellow and brown forkful with subtle curry and paprika clout. The Ahi Tartare and Steamed Mussels provide other appetizer choices.
The Chef’s fresh ingredients and ground-to-table philosophy really sing in her salads. The Asian Pear Salad adds the lively, almost musky, power of potent Roquefort blue cheese to the concentrated perk of dried cherries and the dulcet crunch of candied pecans. The fruit delightfully fills out this bouquet of tastes and textures. The Roasted Beet Salad beckons with colors: the scarlet-red beets, the deep moss-green fresh avocado, and the beige-white fresh trout. Slices of trout and avocado pedestal atop the beets, and the power trio of components is drizzled with a champagne vinaigrette that makes the ensemble harmonize marvelously.
The Pasta and Risotto menu section dips deeply into the Japanese tradition. In the Japanese Pumpkin Ravioli, the Chef deftly sweetens puréed pumpkin, avoiding the heavy-handedness that besets inferior versions. Brown butter and brown sugar team in a sweet sauce that clads the ravioli. The Red Caviar Spaghetti plates a panoply of Japanese favorites: red sushi grade ikura, nori, julienne scallions, and bottarga, with spaghetti in an unusual dish. The Lobster Saffron Risotto and Pad Thai Noodles provide some other choices in this category, as well.
Entrée selections split evenly between meat and sea, and there’s also a vegetarian creation: Sesame Crusted Tofu Steak. Carnivores might like to try the Braised Lamb Shank. Perched atop a large white ironstone plate, the lamb shank towers above a creamy white puff of polenta. Redolent of rosemary, the fork-tender reddish meat is slathered with a spicy lamb braising jus that pools in the periphery of the plate.
Lastly, Chef Banta makes all the desserts. I recommend the Crème Brûlée or the Boffo Chocolate Cake. In her five years at La Bohème, Chef Banta’s mastery in creating coherent dishes that blend and fuse Japanese and French cuisine obviously pleases most of the people most of the time. She can never strike an item from the menu without protest. In fact, some of the items on this menu have been here for almost five years. That’s a true accomplishment in restaurant circles, especially in LA.