There comes a point during dinner at Oriel, the modish French bistro from restaurateur Dustin Lancaster, where you give up trying to orient yourself. You’re situated on the eastern edge of Chinatown, inside a squat corner space that once housed an acupuncture clinic. The Gold Line silently glides by overhead. Set against the lonely streetscape, the building’s exterior, lined with bands of humming red neon, looks equal parts Blade Runner and Hopper’s Nighthawks. For all of Chinatown’s recent development, this stretch of Alameda still rolls up its sidewalks at sundown. It might be the last place in L.A. you’d expect to find a nice cheese plate and glass of Picpoul.
Like many of Lancaster’s establishments—Bar Covell, Augustine, the Hermosillo—the ostensible draw of Oriel is the bar, where you’ll find Kronenbourg 1664 on draft and a dozen superb wines by the glass. But despite operating in a kitchen smaller than some walk-in closets, chef Evan Algorri, an alumnus of David Bouley’s erstwhile French restaurant in New York, pulls off a short menu of Gallic greatest hits, from frisée aux lardons to a croque madame paved with bechamel.
His steak bavette is paired with potato purée instead of frites (no space for a fryer), while pungent garlic aioli lends maximum effect to a nest of haricots verts. Bronzed gnocchi Parisienne, crisped then bathed in brown butter and shaved Parmesan, are almost too decadent, but richness seems to be a theme here (don’t expect anything daintier than a salad showered with Gouda). At a time when even the starchiest French spots are channeling a breezy California vibe, Oriel is unique in its unrepentant Frenchiness.
Still, the best dishes—cubed steak tartare with Bub and Grandma’s bread, bubbling onion soup, chicken liver mousse laced with cognac—aren’t the kind to be pondered too much. It’s homey cooking meant to fortify against a cool winter night. And there’s probably no better nook for a first date than one on the low-lit patio, splitting a crème brûlée while Depeche Mode drones from the speakers. Who knew French in Chinatown could feel like such a natural pairing? (1135 N. Alameda St., Chinatown)
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