Living in L.A. does things to a person.
You might get into better shape. You might get more sun, improving your mood, and spend more time in the car, which does the opposite. You might make some regrettable fashion choices, like skull-printed shirts or knit caps worn in 95-degree weather.
As far as restaurants go, the same good vibes that iron out the wrinkles in your brain undoubtedly translate to certain dining habits here too: We're casual and we like to share.
"Small plates, served family style" is like a civic motto at this point. And when was the last time you dressed up for dinner? Shorts and baseball caps abound at even the priciest of places.
My point is, we don't stand on ceremony here.
That brings us to Maison Matho, an utter delight of a sandwich shop and coffee window in Hollywood that is doing something powerful from its small perch on Melrose near the 101 Freeway. Yes, in that vortex of traffic hell that expands and contracts like a squeezebox between those magical congestion hours of 7 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m. Namely, Maison Matho is giving us thoughtful, seasonal and approachable French food without a modicum of pretense.
French food certainly isn't inherently stuffy, but you'd be forgiven for thinking the country that gave us the brigade de cuisine can sometimes be uptight about its food. At Maison Matho, you'll find most of the small menu is presented in sandwich form, one of the great populist edifices in food, and everything comes in a to-go container.
That's because seating is minimal — a couple of benches and tables around the small, one-story structure Maison Matho shares with a beauty salon, right across the street from where the old Bangkok Market used to sit.
Chef-owner Daniel Matho can be seen donning a pleated toque in the tiny kitchen, but it seems to be done with a wink as opposed to being overly self-serious. Matho and his kitchen lieutenant, journeyman chef Tibet La Sha, work under one of those felt menu boards with interchangeable plastic letters — the type you'd see at a concession stand in a rec center — on which stands the classic Brillat-Savarin quote, "The fate of the nation depends on the way that they eat."
Maybe Robespierre would have chilled out a bit if he'd had one of Matho's superb sandwiches? The jambon beurre is one of the best iterations I've tried — shaved ribbons of ham packed between two halves of a house-made baguette that crunches appropriately on the outside and is gently chewy within. Both halves are smeared with a layer of butter thicker than the sole on a Doc Marten. It's an indecent amount of butter — and I wouldn't have it any other way. Tart cornichon slices pleasingly dot the sandwich throughout.
Two other cured meat sandwiches, one eponymously called Daniel's Favorite, made with prosciutto (and more cornichons — you might even get lucky and nab a plump caper berry) and another with bresaola, are also excellent. The tissue-thin bresaola is particularly nice, deep and intense, without that fatty sweetness you get from a prosciutto. The cured bresaola itself is relatively dry, but Matho considerately slathers on a layer of broccoli pureé before adding some thin strips of fennel and a sprinkle of pistachio nuts.
On to the eggs: French cuisine and omelets go together like the Captain and Tennille. You might sometimes like a classic quenelle-shaped French omelet with a runny center together with some bread and a small, well-dressed salad. So why not enjoy all of that, all at once, in sandwich form?
Matho presents a perfectly cooked, not-too-runny omelet (a very wet center, he explained, wouldn't work as well on a sandwich) on one of his baguettes in two interpretations, one with Comté cheese and one with crème fraîche and trout roe. Both are good, but I like the latter with the brackishness of the roe. Both come with lettuce leaves well-dressed with vinaigrette, bringing a welcome acidic oomph to the proceedings.
Matho is originally from Grenoble, France, about equidistant from Lyon and Geneva, Switzerland. He explained that after moving to L.A. five or six years ago and working a stint at the now-closed Trois Mec, he wanted to do his own thing, opening Maison Matho with assistance from industry vets Danny Greene and Vanessa Martinez. Specifically, Matho wanted to make versions of items, like the jambon beurre, that he missed from France.
But California has its benefits too, and Matho has embraced them, in the form of seasonal items that are gone before you know it. An excellent peach sandwich with briny strips of shaved cucumber that you could get a month or two ago is gone now, but weep not: You can try a savory spaghetti squash in a vadouvan curry that's so creamy you'd scarcely believe it was vegan.
You can't go wrong with too much on the menu — my quibbles are mostly picayune. I found a couple of the specialty drinks a bit sweet. Would I like more pickles? Always. The omelet sandwich is unwieldy, yes, but deal with it.
The outer lamination of a plain croissant doesn't crackle and flake as much as I'd like, but a ham-and-cheese, with an understated, nutmeg-forward bechamel flavor, really sings. The very good French ravioli, stuffed with cheese and parsley, are simultaneously dainty and over-the-top decadent, baked in a small pan with cream, cheese and more cream.
It's a tight menu where you can't really go wrong: tasty, easy and comforting but done attentively. That care may contrast with the relentless urbanity of the stretch of road on which it lies. But we all contain multitudes, don't we?
In Maison Matho, French food has embraced the L.A. ethos. Let's all return the favor, and embrace it back.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.