“Lutece: Classic French, Updated Attitude” for Beacon Media Newspapers

July 2008

Friendly service, casual atmosphere and reasonable prices are not usually on the stereotypical French restaurant menu, but are always the special du jour at Lutece, a quaint eatery that opened four months ago in downtown Monrovia.

Lutece’s motto is “Before there was Paris there was Lutece,” since that was the original name of the city. Before there was Lutece the restaurant there was Café Beaujolais in Eagle Rock, which owner Eric Ulmer started many years ago and sold in 2005.

It wasn’t long before his newest venture, South Pasadena’s Bistro de la Gare, gained popularity. With French servers and an all French cooking staff it is no surprise and Lutece (pronounced Loo-tes) has followed suit with an all-French cooking staff and a relaxed environment that serves classic French fare.

“This is a casual, family French bistro,” said Ulmer. “I like a mixed crowd of young people and old people. French restaurants have the reputation for being snobby and I am not snobby anymore after being here for 24 years.”

Despite Ulmer’s reputation as the proprietor of some landmark French restaurants, he routinely greets and seats customers, adding a “voila” after he tells them the day’s specials.

Being around restaurants since he was a child working at his uncle’s Paris restaurants, Ulmer prides himself on assuming the role of chef and sometimes working in the kitchen as well.

“If you own a restaurant and have not been a cook it will not be good,” said Ulmer.

The proof is in the pudding, or in this case, the puree, which was the soup special one day at lunch. Cauliflower puree may not instantly elicit excitement, especially with French onion soup on the menu, but the simple recipe includes reducing the cauliflower to achieve a creamy texture, adding “a touch of cream” said Ulmer, and leaving some small soft cauliflower chunks and topping the savory treat with parsley. Even on a hot summer day, the puree served as comfort food inside the small, air-conditioned restaurant with burgundy walls adorned with small vintage posters.

Lutece’s lunch menu includes salads, paninis, quiche and chicken and meat dishes all at very reasonable prices—many under $10.

Another featured special was the salmon ratatouille quiche, which sounded too good to pass up.

While waiting for the quiche and having my water glass attentively refilled, bountiful plates passed by, such as the croque monsieur panini topped with overflowing melted gruyere cheese, and the chicken breast special stuffed with goat cheese and spinach with a wild mushroom sauce.

The salad Nicoise was more like large portions of beautifully seared tuna on a decorated bed of lettuce. It was visually stunning and looked more than satisfying for lunch or dinner.

All of the dishes were generous servings of the entrée accompanied by salad or fries. The decision between health and indulgence was difficult so Ulmer suggested I get both.

When the quiche arrived I was glad I followed his advice since the salad and fries occupied two-thirds of the plate. The quiche was surprisingly smaller than other entrees I had seen, but what it lacked in size it made up for in flavor.

A fork cut easily into the flaky crust and fluffy egg filling that was mixed with large chunks of moist salmon and a layer of ratatouille at the bottom. After the satisfying puree and slices of baguette with soft butter, I could not even finish the quiche, salad or thin french fries, which were sprinkled with a hint of parsley and garlic.

I took a break and spoke with Ulmer for a bit while I made room for dessert, which proved to be a decision more difficult than choosing between fries and salad.

Classics like crème brulee, chocolate mousse and apple tart are on the menu, but profiteroles—halved cream puffs filled with ice cream and topped with melted Belgian chocolate—sounded especially tantalizing. I would have preferred the profiteroles a bit softer, but everything else was top notch and the quality at Lutece is easy to taste. Ulmer said everything is made onsite except the bottled ketchup.

Dinner fare includes salads, soup, and meat, fish and poultry dishes. It is a shame that Lutece is closed on Sundays and Mondays, but those desiring inexpensive Sunday brunch dishes all under $10, like a three egg omelette, “Frenchy” toast, eggs Benedict and assorted baked goods need only travel to Bistro de la Gare in South Pasadena.

“Americans are very loyal,” said Ulmer, who has had customers follow him to various restaurants over the years.

He has already formed a small following at Lutece and hopefully more locals will stop by to experience a little bit of France in Old Town Monrovia.

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