BBQ frog legs with violet and begonia chutney? Sautéed Hudson Valley foie gras with roasted freshwater eel and green apple infusion? Smoked haddock and nutmeg macarons? Angelenos can expect this type of culinary shock and awe at Bistro LQ, the triumphant return for boundary bending French chef Laurent Quenioux.
Quenioux grew up in Sologne, France, in the shadow of Loire Valley chateaus. Surrounded by lakes, he and his father would often hunt for wild duck, partridge, rabbit and hare. It was in his youth that Quenioux developed his signature love of game. He said, “That’s where they put castles there, because it was the playground for hunting for the French Court.” Quenioux still returns fairly often to visit family and to re-familiarize himself with the taste of wild strawberries.
Quenioux has fond memories of practicing his mother’s dishes as a boy, which quickly led to a love of cooking. Quenioux recounts, “At one point in my schooling, I had two choices: cooking or music.” His parents didn’t ease his decision. “My mom wanted me to be a pianist. My father suggested cooking. He loved to eat so much that he knew chefs all around the country.” As a result, Quenioux landed an apprenticeship in south of France, where “Everything is about fat duck, goose liver and foie gras. I loved it.”
Quenioux started in the kitchen at 7th Street Bistro in downtown Los Angeles in July 1983 and was running the restaurant by December. Quenioux left downtown begrudgingly, saying, “I sold 7th Street Bistro because of the construction of the subway. There were so many things I still wanted to do downtown.”
When comparing his cooking 25 years ago to what he’s doing now, Quenioux said, “The cooking was more conservative, but whatever we were doing was over the top, because it was the beginning of the cooking and wine revolution in America. I still do some of the dishes, but now it’s so much more mature and assertive with technique, and so much more exciting ideas because of the evolution of life.” Ingredients have also become much more readily available since the 80’s. Quenioux regularly calls his mother in France, and two days later, he can cook using the ingredients. There is only one change that Quenioux laments: “Back then you could get gorgeous truffles for a fraction of the price, because the market was so inexpensive.”
Quenioux landed in South Pasadena in July 2002, at Bistro K, a jewel box of a restaurant attached to the Fremont Centre Theatre. He continued honing his experimental vision, saying, “We did things off the wall and people responded well.” At Bistro K, Quenioux estimates he was cooking 85% of the dishes himself, explaining, “I’ve got to do it myself.”
With the city’s revitalized core attracting an infusion of loft dwellers and billions in development dollars, Quenioux felt the time was finally right to return downtown. He hopes to capitalize on the downtown lunch crowd and the proximity to markets and the San Gabriel Valley, where he buys fresh tea and goat meat. It’s also central to his customer base, which he expects to drive from Pasadena and Orange County. He also loves downtown’s energy. Quenioux said, “I love downtown for the architecture and vibrant culture. I don’t like the Westside very much. It’s stale.”
Bistro 1100 will be west of the 110 freeway, at the base of a converted apartment building. He said, “I love the location. I’m not in the center of downtown. I always have restaurants in quirky areas where nobody else will go.”
To challenge himself at Bistro 1100, Quenioux isn’t accepting any investors, meaning he won’t have anybody to report to, but he also assumes all the financial responsibility. Quenioux said, “I’ll be the sole owner, but it will push me to do good.” Since he plans to spend the majority of his time in the kitchen, he’s invested in an “incredible stove.”
Quenioux acknowledges that his style of cooking is “experimental,” crediting his innovation to “always researching new ingredients, beautiful flavors.” He visits the farmers market every morning. He added, “The techniques we’re using are really, really different. We’ve been working with a distillery, extracting essentials from different foods.” For example: “Pizza extract. Out of that, you can create cold pizza. We can play with it and add microgreens and sun-dried tomatoes. You’re creating different style of eating pizza.”
Instead of using ubiquitous meats like lamb shank, filet mignon and chicken, Quenioux uses rarely seen game like venison, squab and Scottish hare. Quenioux said, “We owe it to clients to do that. I wish other restaurants did it. If they did, it would be easier to find it in the market, and we’d be able to teach larger crowds to appreciate those dishes. We need to keep that alive, or people will forget about it.” He particularly enjoys game’s strong flavors and how they pair with wine.
Another Quenioux signature is the tasting menu. At Bistro 1100, Quenioux will offer six-course, eight-course and a six-course vegetarian menu. On Tuesdays, the restaurant will only serve tasting menus. Quenioux said, “For people who like food and wine, it’s the best introduction to a restaurant. You can see the chef and the restaurant’s vision in the tasting menu better than from an appetizer, entrée and dessert. It also allows you to try more wines, different flavors, which is more exciting for the diner.”
Quenioux understands that not every diner is interested in a multi-course extravaganza. He said, “Last year, we did a white and black truffle tasting menu that was 24 courses, but some people don’t want to stay and eat for two or three hours more.” As an alternative, he’ll offer French classics like pot au feu and cassoulet, plus an a la carte menu featuring half-portions. “Half portions worked well for me back in ’86,” said Quenioux. “You can do three courses off the regular menu, but it will give you three great experiences.”
Bistro 1100’s bright, airy space will feature exposed ceilings and an exhibition kitchen. He said, “The decor will be extremely modern with bright murals from local artist.” Quenioux will only accept 50 reservations per night, but he’ll have a 15-seat table for walk-ins. Quenioux said, “Our goal is to have a more efficient space and to add such modern luxuries as air-conditioning, easy to find bathrooms and a functional and efficient kitchen,” none of which were available at Bistro K.
On January 25, Chef Quenioux estimated that he’s looking at nine months of construction. He hopes to debut Bistro 1100 in September or October 2008. In the meantime, he’s guest chefing once a month in friends’ kitchens at Vermont in Los Feliz and Zmario in Irvine, testing tasting menus and other dishes that he could end up serving at his restaurant.
UPDATE: Laurent Quenioux abandoned plans for Bistro 1100 and opened Bistro LQ instead, in July 2009