Something curious is afoot in downtown Culver City. What was once a cheerless passageway to the Westside has taken on a life of its own. A crop of new eateries has materialized along Culver Boulevard, making it a destination unto itself, and Fraiche is the leader of the pack. With its folksy Mediterranean cuisine and d & #233;cor that manages to be chic without the pretense, Fraiche is making Angelenos reconsider Culver City and its newfound cachet.

Despite being open less than a year, Fraiche has created quite a buzz. Helmed by husband and wife team Jason and Miho Travi, who met while working at Spago, Fraiche is managed by co-owner and sommelier Thierry Perez. Fueled by a love of the French and Italian countryside and its rustic cuisine, this culinary dream team set out to re-create the experience, translating it to the very specific dining culture of Los Angeles.

If there is one commonality shared by Californian and European diners, it is their mutual love of al fresco dining. Fraiche features a sizable covered patio overlooking the emerging village. Sure, the cars are plenty noisy, but few things are more pleasurable than indulging in a fruits de mer platter at a sidewalk cafe. For those who find the din of traffic off-putting, Fraiche's interior is every bit as charming. Designed by Ernie Roth, the terra cotta hues and farmhouse stone walls reference the restaurant's bucolic leanings without being hokey. Providing balance and contrast, the copper-topped bar and open kitchen lend the space a more polished, urbane feel.

This juxtaposition of provincial and cosmopolitan elements is a central theme to the cuisine at Fraiche. Take the Nicoise salad: although the traditional elements are all present (seared albacore, string beans, fingerling potatoes, hard-boiled egg and namesake olives), the plating is thoroughly modern. The greens have been taken out of the equation in favor of the "good stuff," and they are hardly missed. Executive chef Travi relies heavily on market-fresh produce, and nowhere is that more evident than in his attractive selection of salads. They are so enticing, we barely notice the puzzling lack of starters on the menu.

The warm mushroom salad is even better. With Parmesan shavings gracing a fluffy mound of greens, the earthy mushrooms are challenged by a delicate citrus dressing. My fellow diner remarks the salad is a bit on the oily side, but for me it is perfection. It takes every bit of willpower I can muster to leave room for the coming dishes.

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