Sunday, December 11, 2011

L'Epicerie, Royal/T: A Tale of Two Breakfasts in Culver City

Have I ever mentioned that I love Culver City?  It's the best of both worlds: small town feel with the rare-for-LA pedestrian culture, yet super accessible from most parts of the city.  Add to that the rapid rise of chef & market driven fare, in well designed but intimate and unpretentious spaces, and you've got all the ingredients for success. 

By happy happenstance, on a friend's recommendation, I recently switched to a mechanic right by Culver City.  So when I had to take my car to the shop a few weeks back, I was excited to actually have great options for places to spend a few hours while waiting for repairs to be done - and within walking/ bus distance!

Since it was early in the morning, my first stop was at L'Epicerie for breakfast.  L'Epicerie is a combination of cafe+restaurant+gourmet market, serving up European inspired cooking, set within a cozy corner space. 

Despite an impressive fine-dining pedigree (Michelin-starred restaurants in France under such legendary chefs as Alain Ducasse and Guy Savoy, and most recently at helm of fine dining venue RH Restaurant at the Andaz hotel), Chef Sébastien Archambault's goal with L'Epicerie is to offer a taste of Southwest France in an accessible, relaxed environment. 

I loved the airy, sunlit venue - however, the L'Epicerie houses 3 sections within a small space, that are not immediately clearly defined (at least in my non-morning person semi-groggy state).  Which led to a not so idyllic experience to start - with car repairs taking a large chunk of my monthly budget, I went for the cafe fare, and after placing my order at the counter, received a number marker and was advised to sit anywhere (food to be brought over when ready).

As a blogger, I went on autopilot, gravitating to the window and natural light for photo-taking.  Within a minute, a voice shouted out from the tapas bar, clear across front of house: "You can't sit there - you bought from the cafe, you need to stay over there".  I immediately apologized and moved over to the 3-4 table cafe area.  Then I realized that was rather rude for her to shout across the space like that - I did not intend some unmerited 'upgrade' to the restaurant, but simply did not register a separation between the restaurant and cafe.  It was so early in the morning that I was one of only 3 parties in the entire space, so it wasn't a matter of taking up a table that was needed.  It was an honest mistake, and it didn't feel great to be treated like a second-class citizen who was trying to 'sneak by' to 'first class'.  She could have taken a nicer approach and achieved the same result of moving me over.  Bad customer service aside, I tried to enjoy my morning by focusing on the food.

In the mood for a classic, I went with the 3 Organic Egg Omelette ($10) - you can choose 3 ingredients to go in from an extensive list: I chose smoked salmon, bacon and mushrooms.  This turned out to be one of the best omelettes I'd had this year - with every ingredient tasting so fresh that I could imagine the meal at some farmhouse in the French countryside, where the chef literally just plucked the eggs from the mother hen and the mushrooms from the field. 

On the side: a fresh salad lightly dressed with vinaigrette, for a perfect breakfast plate at a fairly reasonable price. 

In keeping with the farm fresh theme, I loved my Raspberry Smoothie ($5) with raspberry, strawberry, granola and fat-free yogurt.  Delicious.  It was also nice to stroll through the very small but eclectic market, checking out their cheese selection (includes French cheese of course, as well as 'local' notables such as Cowgirl Creamery) and European snacks that are hard to find elsewhere in LA.  A small case of pastries included Parisian style macarons.  There was also a table by the wine racks that could be nice for a small group of aficionados.  Overall (initial rude service aside), I enjoyed breakfast at L'Epicerie, and made a mental note to come back another time to check out restaurant offerings.

With a few more hours left to kill, I decided to grab a second breakfast (and pay the calories forward by walking up the street) at a place that I'd heard a lot about, that would offer amusement for my remaining time - Royal/T. 

Royal/T is also a hybrid space, but of a very different tone - it's part art gallery+store+cafe, with heavy modern Japanese influence. And waitresses in cosplay. Yep, you read that right. More on that later.

Located up the street and somewhat removed from the hubbub of downtown Culver City, Royal/T can be easy to miss if you're not looking for it. The storefront is encased in green shrubbery, with just a neon pink crown atop the entrance to note its presence.

Once inside, bright and airy with wide open skylights, there is a fun merchandise area on one side, and an art exhibit to the other.
The art exhibit was pop culture inspired and playful, lots of fun to look through and made for a unique, cool and interesting setting for the cafe.

As was the merchandise area - I could imagine this store being plucked from Tokyo and placed with all elements intact into Royal/T. It was entertaining to look through the quirky products, including tote bags that transform into backpacks, Kubrick bears and an illustrated "Children's book for grown-ups" titled "Everybody dies - don't feel bad" that was funny and poignant at the same time.

Meet Phoebe, a graphic design student
working part-time in the cosplay cafe
 Aside from the store and art space, there was the cafe, which is inspired by Maid Cafes in Japan - and represents LA's first Japanese-inspired cosplay cafe.  Waitresses are dressed and styled as if they are anime french maids.  You might think this would be uncomfortable for some, but the waitresses I saw/met that day seemed to enjoy it / relish being in character. 
Though the menu looked interesting (e.g. Green tea soba noodles, Kabocha Squash Ravioli), unfortunately I was still too full to have any actual food, so I opted to go liquid breakfast for my second 'meal'.  Royal/T has a wall of loose leaf teas, but the barista on duty recommended that as a first time visitor, I should try their signature Royal/T Milk Tea ($4.50), made with black tea, rose petals, pieces of fruit and vanilla brewed with soymilk.

The tea came in a french press pot, was really fragrant, with pronounced floral / fresh fruit notes, in a sophisticated way, not the sickeningly sweet flavors a la mass branded tea bags or lesser cafes that are not tea-focused.  It was well balanced, served at just the right temperature, and made deliciously smooth with the steamed soymilk - this was milk tea served the Asian way.  Loved this and would come back another day to try the High Tea Set service as well, which includes "assorted savory canapés and desserts on 3-tiered tray" with a pot of tea of your choice for $19.50. 

I had picked up a free magazine from the front of the store, and was left in peace to leisurely enjoy my tea/ read for a blissful hour or two. 

Afterwards, I discovered a whole back gallery with additional exhibits, up the ramp past the restroom, and did a quick walkthrough before heading out to pick up my car.

All in all, a fun time in Culver City - with two very distinctly different spaces and cuisines, but both equally enjoyable and appreciated.  Knock on wood I won't be needing car service again anytime soon (my wallet hurts just thinking about it), but if I do, thanks to places like L'Epicerie and Royal/T, I won't be dreading it quite as much.

 [For more pictures from both locations, check out my album on Facebook]


9900 Culver Boulevard, Culver City, CA 90232
Ph: 310.815.1600
Parking: Free in building

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L'Epicerie  on Urbanspoon

8910 Washington Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232
Ph: 310.559.6300
Parking: Street meters

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Royal/T Café on Urbanspoon

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