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.

Next to arrive is the orecchiette pasta, recommended by our server. The ear-shaped pasta is hearty, especially with the addition of chicken sausage. The boldly herbed ground meat is generously mixed into the dish with arugula lending a pleasingly bitter note. More like a stew than traditional pasta, it is full of flavor and beyond filling.

The branzino at Fraiche is nothing like the staid versions you will find at a traditional Italian restaurant. The mild filet is perched atop a heap of rice with capers and roasted peppers. The menu reads "red rice," leading us to expect a Southern-style tomato-based mixture, but the rice itself is actually red. This particular variety of rice has the texture and flavor akin to wild rice, but due to the fermentation process also has a reddish-purple coloring. It is an exciting change-up that leaves us hoping more restaurants will follow suit.

At the behest of my lunch date, we order the merguez. Unfamiliar with the spicy lamb sausage, I defer to my in-the-know companion who had become a fan of the North African staple during his years in France. Sandwiched between dense ciabatta, it is out of this world. The traditional harissa, a chili paste, gives the meat its kick and fiery color. The thick-cut fries that come with the sandwich are terrific, and in a perfect reflection of Fraiche's roots and audience, served with both ketchup and mayo.

Considering pastry chef Miho Travi has worked at Spago and Sona, both known for their incredible desserts, Fraiche's offerings are disappointing. While five selections are appropriate for lunch, we are uninterested in cheesecake, cookies or a brownie "torte." The zucchini olive oil cake does pique our interest, but the reality is nowhere near as exciting as our expectations. When presented with the dry, thin slice of cake, we are wholly underwhelmed. The lemon fiore di latte (flower of the milk) topping perks up the lackluster cake, but I have had better zucchini bread at church socials. The bonet, a traditional Piedmontese custard, fares much better with candied hazelnuts and an orange-infused cream that pairs well with the cinnamon confection.

It's obvious that Fraiche has hit a note with Angelenos. While many restaurants are languishing in this less-than-desirable economic climate, it is doing a respectable amount of business even when we visit for a midweek lunch. The fact that the food is exceptional and affordable can't hurt. The addition of a few appetizers to the menu would be welcome, but who can argue with three restaurateurs who have managed to turn Culver City into a fashionable dining destination? Diners have voiced their approval, and we think they might be on to something.

Reviewer Lindsey Styrwoll can be reached at L_Styrwoll@yahoo.com.

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