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Oui Like It: At its outpost on North Santa Cruz in Los Gatos, Pigalle diners enjoy a reasonable and satisfying prix fixe menu--a Pigalle specialty.

French Connection

After 25 years, Pigalle still holds the bold flavors and cozy atmosphere of a Paris bistro

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

IT WAS 1976 when Ken Poisson painted the first mural on the walls of Champs Elysees, a little French dinner house that endeared itself within weeks to the residents of Los Gatos. His painting flanked both sides of this deep rectangular room, depicting the storefronts of Place Pigalle, Pig Alley, the red light district of Paris. These colorful paintings instilled a feeling of authenticity and quaintness that transported us from the South Bay to a table in Paris, full of kitchen aromas and the popping of corks from sanguine wines.

Champs Elysees was the closest thing to a real French bistro the South Bay had. The kitchen turned out hearty French food that made a full commitment to flavor, offering rich sauces and lush meats including roasted duck with seasonal fruit sauces. Champs Elysees lasted many years before Steve Lopez, the talented chef from Le Papillon and Le Petit Moulin Rouge, became the alchemist in charge.

Pigalle was born at that time, and with it came the resurrection of the three-course prix fixe dinner. Prices were reasonable and allowed discriminating diners to eat well without having to break the bank. Lopez lasted a few years and we all loved what he did.

After his departure, the kitchen fell into the hands of competent chef Ignatio Pena. That was over 10 years ago and still he remains at the burners, putting out dishes in the classic French style. I particularly noted his ability to make sauces that were robust and aromatic, applied with boldness that awoke the palate with footfalls instead of tiptoes.

In 2001, Pigalle hasn't really changed much. It's still quaint and cozy, and the wall paintings--though seeming a little corny now--still play sweetly on the senses. With its heavy stone walls and cobbled walkways leading to the restrooms in the back, a cave-like atmosphere embraced us in a warm, comforting shell. The menu offers a wide selection of meats, fish and poultry, and semi-exotic meats--kangaroo, ostrich, venison and wild boar, to name the standouts. Roasted duck remains a specialty.

Pigalle is open seven days and continues to be one of the few--certainly one of the nicest--places to have lunch on a lazy Sunday. We caught it right on our visit. Sunlight came through the windows and opened the colors of Mr. Poisson's mural. The view and the food spun life in a positive direction.

The prix fixe dinners are still offered and competitively priced. From this ledger we selected the poached fillet of salmon ($24), which began in question with a salad of rugged greens weighted down with an oil-heavy raspberry vinaigrette. The question: What happened to red wine vinegar? Raspberry vinegar works some of the time, when applied with discretion, but when used to the point of tedium it no longer seems special. The pungent raspberry exploded on this salad like a bomb blast.

The thick fillet of salmon was quite good, however--full of juice and natural flavor and waxing delicate pink under the muted lighting of the room. The meat flaked and was moist. A good white butter sauce was applied without interrupting flavor. Dessert (the third course) came to us in the form of fresh raspberries submerged in a dense crème anglaise that ended up being spooned like soup.

With the a la carte specialties, we ran into a little trouble at the start. We opened with a combination of chewy, fishy-tasting mussels and clams in a ponderous butter sauce so imposing the tomatoes and leek could be seen, but not tasted. We were all put off by this one. In contrast, the pâté--made of duck liver and served with toast points, coarse mustard and cornichons (pickles)--restored our faith by piquing, not bludgeoning, our taste buds.

Pigalle deserves recognition for the high standards that this restaurant enforces when selecting meat. Both Filet of Beef ($25) and Rack of Lamb ($29) had the flavor and mouth-melting texture of top shelf quality, "... like butter," one guest described. So tender, in fact, a knife was unnecessary. They were matched with appropriate enhancements--the beef with a classic rendering of butter maitre d'hotel--that arrived from the kitchen still melting, the lamb with a rich cabernet demi-glace spiked with green peppercorns. Pan-roasted potatoes and green beans glistening with butter framed these meats--the way they do in Paris at a neighborhood bistro.

A gentleman named Mathew was our server this visit to Pigalle. This man was humorous and full of life. He was present and conveyed the effects of joie de vivre without seeming smarmy. Management of plates and wine went on cue. On the way home that evening, his laughter escorted my thoughts on how important a good server is to the success of a dinner out.

I find it interesting to see that Pigalle has not shifted its allegiance away from classic French cooking. Chef Pena hangs steady with tradition and seems to understand the futility and frustration of reinventing the wheel. I like the prix fixe menu. It still works, even today. And those murals--they work too, especially in the right light when the images come dancing out from the walls.

Address: 27 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos
Phone: 408.395.7924
Hours: 11am-10pm Mon-Sat, 10am-9pm Sun
Cuisine: French
Price Range: $23-$30

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From the June 14-20, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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