Guillotines and Escargots

Photo by Jessica CalkinsI'm not certain why watching guillotines slice off the heads of aristocrats during the French Revolution's Reign of Terror the other day made me so bloody hungry. In any case, it was while viewing Andrzej Wajda's Danton for the umpteenth time that this corpulent correspondent began a-hankerin' for a good, cheap French meal.

Cheap is difficult to come by in the U.S. For all the snob appeal of French cuisine to Americans, one week in the City of Light will teach you that even the most pedestrian Parisian dines regularly on a level the nastiest Newport Beach yuppie can't match. In the States, the adjective "French" usually means "expensive"; in the French capital, an exquisite repast is extremely reasonable.

"Well, that's Paris," you might say. But I think that's a cop-out, and my recent visit to Westminster's Saigon Bistro proves it. There, in a particularly dingy cul-de-sac shared by the Vietnamese Broadcasting Company, my companion and I enjoyed a delightful French dinner, with starters, wine and coffee for $40, excluding tip. Crikey, in OC, that's nearly a miracle on par with the loaves and the fishes!

Not that our feast was perfect. The escargots aux herbes appetizer proved our supper's weakest moment, coming as it did so encrusted with butter and garlic you could not taste the mollusks underneath. This is the unfortunate way most restaurants in America that bother with snails serve the little buggers.

I suspect this has to do with the quality of what's being served. One of my fondest memories of Paris is of the escargots I had there, served in shells with the lightest patina of garlic and butter so you can savor their earthy flavor. The snails were thick, brown and fresh unlike the tasteless, anemic, black slivers Americans think of as haute cuisine.

Saigon Bistro made up for lost ground with its turtle and Chinese herbs soup. This unusual stew had a slightly bitter yet savory taste to it, and both my comrade and I were quite taken with it. The turtle meat was tender and only moderately gamy. Companioned in its broth with burdock root, it easily trumped the snail fiasco, which calls to mind that joke where the snail goes into the police station to report being mugged by two armed turtles. "What did they look like?" the cop asks the snail. "I don't know," he replies. "It all happened so fast!"

Next were entrées. My partner had Vietnamese-style chicken curry, which I sampled and can report is tasty. I selected filet mignon from the French items on the menu, and let me tell you, it was worthy of nearly any Parisian bistro. Wrapped in bacon and with a pat of butter on top, it was gloriously sinful, served medium-rare with veggies. I devoured the peppered, textured meat with gusto, washing it down with two glasses of inexpensive table red. Why, I was as jovial as a Jacobin at Louis XVI's beheading!

I finished off with a cup of coffee, brought to me with one of those odd, French-press thingees on top: my, it offered my immense hindquarters a swift kick. Other than the eclectic mix of music being played (Vietnamese, French and jazz), Saigon Bistro was short on ambiance, decorated simply with photos of tropical flowers. Still, when you get a supper like that at such an insanely low price, who needs atmosphere?

Saigon Bistro French and Vietnamese Cuisine, located at 15470 Magnolia St., Westminster, is open Thurs.-Tues., 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Wed., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. (714) 895-2120. Full bar. Dinner for two, $18, food only. MC and Visa accepted.


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