Though we've gone through a mini-surge of French restaurants in Southern California, they remain a rarity compared with our multitude of Italian, Mexican and Japanese options. French fell out of favor three or four decades ago. And really, we've never quite regained our taste for the stuff.
Certainly, we have Thomas Keller's Bouchon in Beverly Hills, David Myers' Comme Ca in West Hollywood - and here in the South Bay, Cafe Pierre in Manhattan Beach, Zazou in Redondo Beach, and the very old-school La Rive Gauche in Palos Verdes Estates.
But really, that's not much. The streets of New York are paved with bistros and brasseries. Here, we've got to look around.
And what we find looking around, most recently, is the Oh La La Bistro & Wine Bar in Redondo Beach - a pleasant French restaurant with a name that makes me cringe.
But once you get past the name, there's nothing to cringe about here.
This is an impressively classic French bistro, with the sort of bistro dishes that remind us just how flavorful French cooking can be - and lots of wines to wash it all down with.
And, I should add, they love their mussels here. And since I've long been rather made for mussels, that alone makes me happy.
Mussels are a gift from the sea - and not especially caloric. A very good match. (They're also higher in protein and lower in fat and calories than beef. And they're a terrific source of vitamin B-12 and selenium. Gotta get your selenium.)
I don't remember the first time I ate mussels, though I do remember obsessing on them as a teenager on a trip to France, possibly because they usually came with french fries, and any dish that came with french fries was a dish I liked.
I've long had a thing for shellfish - I'm mad for shrimp, crab and lobster, adore clams, and am convinced I can eat twice my body weight in oysters. But mussels are special, simply because they are so ... musselly.
They're rarely eaten raw, often cooked in a broth that infuses them with butter, wine and herbs. And at Oh La La, they come five ways - or, perhaps, 10 ways, for you can get them both as an appetizer-sized portion and as an entree-sized portion. At Oh La La, they give you more mussel options than anyone else in town.
They're served with a Champagne sauce, a dill sauce, a Gorgonzola sauce, a mushroomy poulette sauce, and they are well-spiced, in the N'awlins style. I guess the Champagne sauce comes closest to the classic preparation of mussels in a broth of white wine, shallots, garlic, parsley, butter and perhaps a bit of tarragon.
There's also a preparation of mahi mahi in a mussel sauce.
But however you get your mussels at Oh La La, virtually all of them tend to have popped open (which is good), most of them are chubby little critters, and they pop out of their shells easily. My suggestion is to order the entree size; chances are good you'll finish every one of them.
Oh La La offers an interesting mix of dishes that are French, Continental, Italian, even American. It's what French (or perhaps I should say, "French") restaurants in Southern California have been doing for a while.
Go Deep Gallic, as they did at Anisette in Santa Monica, and Mimosa in the Fairfax District, and your lifespan as a restaurant may be limited. (They were very good places. But, as I said, our relationship with French cooking has long been strange. We used to worship temples of haute cuisine such as L'Ermitage, Le Restaurant and L'Orangerie. Now, I don't think I can imagine trying to consume all that butter and cream.)
Oh La La tries to find the middle ground between the old school, the new school - and really, no particular school at all.
The space is calm, quiet, soothing - you can actually have a proper conversation with those sitting at your table. Those of a romantic leaning might even refer to it as "seductive." A pleasant evening can be spent at the wine bar, working your way through the regions and vintages of France.
After numerous incarnations of restaurants in this space (remember Le Beaujolais?), this might be the one that sticks around.
Certainly it will attract those nostalgic for a proper order of beef Bourguignon, a dish many of us know from our days trying to cook like Julia Child; beef in red wine sauce is one of the most basic, and most satisfying, of French country dishes.
There's a dish of chicken breast in red wine sauce, as well, which certainly comes close to our old favorite, coq au vin - a dish that, back in the day, made you sound ever-so-sophisticated to rattle it off on a date at a French restaurant. It marked you as a Man of the World.
The same red wine sauce is served with the 14-ounce rib eye. And in both cases, it carries the sobriquet "marchand de vin" - which simply means "wine merchant."
It's the most basic of red wine reductions, a sauce made with red wine and shallots, cooked with the brown stock called demi-glace. If you can turn on the stove, you can make the sauce. (As long as you don't turn it up to a boil, and then go out to see a movie. Which I once did. It wasn't pretty.)
I should note that, as is proper for a French restaurant, they do enjoy their cheese at Oh La La - and good for them! There's a French onion soup topped with a virtual lid of melted cheese. There's a warm goat cheese salad - and a not warm farmers' market salad made with goat cheese, Brie, mozzarella and blue cheese. It's like a cheese plate served atop greens.
And speaking of cheese plates, there are several - a Gorgonzola plate, a Brie plate, a goat cheese plate - and a plate with all three, along with some mozzarella.
There's also a pair of quiches (and yes, real men do eat quiche), though neither is a classic bacony quiche Lorraine. Instead, they're made in one case with salmon and goat cheese, and in the other case with chicken and blue cheese.
There's no cheesecake for dessert. But there is a nice thick chocolate mousse - a tasty bit of indulgence on top of a meal that can be as indulgent as you want it to be. Or, as they say in the trade, oh la la!
Merrill Shindler is a freelance restaurant critic. His show, "Feed Your Face," can be heard from 4 to 5 p.m. Saturdays on KABC (790 AM).