THE DIARY OF A DINER

Restaurant critics are asked three questions: How did you get your job? How do you keep your figure? How do you choose the restaurants you review? This won't answer the first two questions, but it ought to give you some insight into the last.

MONDAY

Today 32 people I don't know called and asked for dining advice. Some of them were very nice, but when a secretary called from Boston I finally lost my patience. Her boss was coming to L.A. for an eight-day jaunt, and she wanted me to tell her where he should eat each of his meals. "Please do a little research," she said, "I'll call you back tomorrow. Don't forget the telephone numbers." That was the last straw. I told her about the many wonderful guidebooks on the market. And then I hung up.

The phone rang again almost immediately. It was the restaurant critic from a college newspaper, and he wanted to know what I thought of the Bistro Garden. It reminded me that I haven't been there in a long while. "Are you going to try it?" he said wistfully, "I wish I could come with you."

Two hours later I am thinking that I wish he were there to see the treatment Colman Andrews and I are getting at lunch. They take one look at the two of us and promptly seat us in Siberia. There may be a beautiful garden, but we can hardly see it from the entrance way in which we are seated, and people going in and out keep tripping over us. The waiter seems ineffably bored by our presence. I have a quesadilla , topped with truly awful guacamole; it costs an astronomical $12 (well, their rent is high). Colman has the hamburger, which has little bits of chopped onion sprinkled into the meat, and is great. Unfortunately, Colman gives me a manuscript, which I manage to leave under the table, and I spend the rest of the afternoon talking a friend into picking it up so that the restaurant won't find out who I am.

The Bistro Garden, 176 N . Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, 550-3900.

Tonight the Reluctant Gourmet is taking me to see "The Cotton Club." Someone suggests that the perfect place to eat before the movie would be Nickodell, and since I've never been there, we do that. We are both immediately charmed; the place is sort of worn and comfortable and filled with an interesting mix of rumpled people who look as if they have been sitting there since the '30s. Is the roast beef rare? Our waitress--who is straight out of the movies--lifts her eyebrows and leads me to understand that this is a near impossibility. "Here?" she says. We end up with great onion rings, decent hamburger steaks, and some of the worst vegetables I've ever eaten. When I give the waitress a decent tip, she says, "Honey, let me stamp your parking ticket twice." To try next time: grilled swordfish.

Nickodell, 5511 Melrose Ave., Hollywood, 469-2181.

TUESDAY

A wine importer calls to tell me about a wonderful little Italian restaurant he has just discovered. It sounds so interesting that I call the writer I am having lunch with and ask her if she would mind changing restaurants. Both of us manage to get lost trying to find the way into the garage.

Giovanni occupies what must once have been a coffee shop in a Wilshire Boulevard office building. A lot of money has been poured into the place; there's a green marble bar, an open pastry kitchen, and lots of neo-modern art everywhere. Despite the sophistication of the decor, the restaurant has a naive feeling; when we order, the waiter nods his head approvingly and says, "Yes, yes, I like risotto very much." I also like the risotto with porcini very much--the chef has managed to make it both creamy and al dente at the same time. The ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta in a butter and sage sauce are equally fine.

These are followed by a couple of disappointing entrees, but the first dishes are so good, the bill so moderate and the service so charming that I leave with every intention of returning sometime soon.

Giovanni, 3540 Wilshire Blvd., 381-6240.

Tonight a friend from out of town has insisted upon eating at Trumps. I'm game; it's been months since I was last here. I am also a little nervous: the chef, Michael Roberts, knows me. I needn't have worried; Michael never emerges from the kitchen, nobody pays us the least mind, and the food is wonderful. Michael may be L.A.'s most slyly humorous chef--there's a little joke lurking somewhere in most of his food. Who else would top plantains with sour cream and black beans and then garnish them with big dollops of black and gold caviar? Who else would put fried chicken, French toast and maple syrup together on the menu of an expensive restaurant? And who else would tuck a plump little duck liver into the thickly battered chicken? This is delicious food, made by someone who not only loves to eat, but never quite gets his tongue out of his cheek. I can't wait to come back.

Trumps, 8764 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, 855-1480.

WEDNESDAY Deadlines are coming closer, and the phones are ringing off the wall. And by midweek the mail gets really intense. Today I've got four unsolicited manuscripts and a mountain of press releases. Usually I just eat a sandwich at my desk, but it's such a nice day that I decide to walk up the street to Daisuke, a little Japanese noodle place in Weller Court. I order my usual, Yamakake soba, cold buckwheat noodles topped with grated yam root, shredded seaweed and a raw egg yolk. As usual the waitress tries to talk me out of it. "You won't like it," she says. And, as usual, I end up eating the whole thing, even though it's about twice as much as I really want, just to prove to her that she was wrong.

Daisuke, 123 S. Weller St., 617-2239.

The Reluctant Gourmet and I confer about dinner. He insists that he will not go out for another meal this week. Finally he gives in--providing that we can eat fish. I settle on Mon Kee West, a restaurant I have been meaning to revisit; it's been a year since I was last there. It will probably be longer before I return. The room is soothing and beautiful. Some of the dishes that are delightful at the downtown branch, like squid with black bean sauce, are perfectly awful.

Mon Kee West, 170 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills, 642-4188.

THURSDAY I have no lunch plans--and a pressing deadline, but some Thursdays the phone is so insistent that it is hard to work. When a writer who does occasional restaurant pieces calls to ask if I will have lunch with him, I immediately agree. If I can't write, at least I can eat. We settle on Rosalind's West African Cuisine, which is halfway between us. It is also dark, almost empty, and a wonderful place to talk. We have the appetizer plate--filled with all sorts of mashed yam balls and beef balls and balls made of black-eyed peas. Some are spicy, some are not, and there is a mildly fiery sauce to dip them into. We follow it with a homey chicken stew, a rather disappointing shrimp salad, and the most intensely coconut-filled pie I have ever attempted not to eat. I like this unpretentious, inexpensive restaurant, and note it as a place to revisit.

Rosalind's West African Cuisine, 1941 S. La Cienega Blvd., 559-8816.

I work until 7, and then go off to Valentino to interview an actor who used to be a restaurant critic. The restaurant was his choice, and when I walk in, he and owner Piero Selvaggio are deep in conversation. Piero must have been impressed, for he proceeds to serve us a truly spectacular four-hour dinner. Few people who have eaten at Valentino more than once are anonymous (that includes me), but I am convinced that anyone willing to spend what it costs to put himself in Piero's hands (a lot) would eat beautifully here. Among many fabulous courses, the one I particularly remember is a plate of little pillows of pasta stuffed with radicchio and saffron and sprinkled with poppy seeds. More about the meal, and the actor, in a couple of weeks.

Valentino, 3115 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, 829-4313.

FRIDAY My lunch date is understandably annoyed when I am 15 minutes late; he says I should have remembered that The Palm won't seat anyone until the whole party has arrived. It seems like hours before we get a table. Meanwhile, we are left to shout at each other across the bar; this must be the noisiest room in L.A.

The waiter throws the lunch menu (there is no printed dinner menu ) at us, recites the specials and runs off. The regular menu is left unsaid (and unpriced), a bit of noblesse oblige that often makes first-time visitors feel like fools.

Especially when they get the bill for the delicious, but absurdly expensive lobster. The other prices aren't all that bad. A good New York steak is $20, and they know how to cook it black and blue--charred on the outside, almost raw within. The cottage fries are good. The coffee is wonderful, and the cheesecake is as good as any I have ever eaten. It starts out solid, and then sort of evaporates beneath your tongue. Still, I'm not sure I'll be eating it again; I won't willingly subject myself to that noise a second time.

Palm Restaurant, 9001 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, 550-8811.

Dinner at Le Chardonnay turns out to be the ideal antidote. It is all so entirely civilized. Eating in this uncanny re-creation of a turn-of-the-century Paris bistro, it is easy to look up and imagine Gigi or Cheri walking in the door. My first visit was a complete disaster, but this time the food is as appealing as the decor. This is solid bistro fare--roast chicken with frites, sauteed calves liver, brains in black butter--and it is hard to really believe that outside the door Melrose Avenue is whooshing past. This place has a lot of California touches, but what it does best is remind you why we were all seduced by French food in the first place.

Le Chardonnay, 8248 Melrose Ave., Hollywood, 655-8880.

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