EAST OF EATIN': A BICOASTAL CRITIC'S DIARY

People ask me a lot of questions. One of the most frequent is: "How come you only review restaurants on the Westside?" The answer is, "I don't," but I can't seem to convince anybody of that. The truth is that I'd rather do almost anything than fight the traffic that makes driving westward a nightmare around dinner time. Restaurant critics do a lot of traveling, and just to prove it, here's the diary of a week that began in New York. Is that far enough east?

MONDAY

I have spent most of my time in New York wandering through food markets and eating on the streets. (I can never resist the smell of the Sabrett hot-dog carts.) On my last day, I decide to try a couple of new restaurants that are the toast of the town. Arcadia is a pretty little place, with a wonderfully naive painting running all around the room. There is an interesting and eclectic menu--I begin with grilled leeks with sweet onion marmalade on puff pastry, follow it with spicy crawfish tails with cole slaw. For dessert, a mango mousse with strawberry sauce. The food is good, the service incredibly civilized, but with a little wine lunch ends up costing about $50 apiece, and it wasn't that good.

Arcadia, 21 East 62nd St., New York City, (212) 223-2900.

Everybody in New York is talking about Indochine. Call for reservations, and you're lucky if they can squeeze you in before midnight. When we walk in, it is hard to see what the hoopla's all about. The place is stark, almost grim, the sole decorations being giant fern fronds which are painted all around the walls. Despite this, it is packed with beautiful people; Marisa Berenson is sitting at the next table. The food is basically Vietnamese, and after eating my way through mediocre spring rolls, overcooked squid in a spicy salad, a tiny ginger stufffed steamed trout and very dry stuffed chicken wings, it is still hard to see what the hoopla's all about.

Indochine, 430 Lafayette St., New York City, (212) 505-5111.

TUESDAY

Back in Los Angeles, I take one look at the stack of mail on my desk and head out to Beverly Hills' newest deli. Designed by "award-winning architect/designer Johannes Van Tilburg," the Other Deli looks like no other deli on Earth; it's main purpose seems to be to provide pastrami to hungry yuppies. But the bread on the sandwiches is double baked; the matzo Brie is generous, buttery and absolutely wonderful; the waitress suitably sarcastic and, when I begin to browse the deli case, the man behind the counter makes unmerciful fun of me. I feel like I am still in New York, and if that's not what a deli's all about, what is?

The Other Deli, 329 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, 205-0330.

Pondering a speech I am to deliver this evening on chef's cookbooks at a Santa Barbara symposium, I duck into a bookstore. Sneaking around behind cookbook buyers, I witness the following exchange:

Woman A, picking up Girardet's new cookbook: "Can you just see me making ravioli with truffles! If I want to spend a million dollars on a meal, you can be damn sure that I'm not the one who's going to be cooking it."

Woman B: "Look at this. A recipe for saddle of wild rabbit with pears. Imagine rummaging through the supermarket meat counter looking for some wild rabbits! I've never even seen tame rabbits in my market."

Neither woman buys the book. Armed with this information, I head up to Santa Barbara, where I am to meet Julia Child and friends for dinner. We have a wonderful meal at Downey's, an unpretentious little restaurant with a very talented chef. They seem totally unintimidated by the presence of America's most famous cook, but perhaps that is because Kenny Loggins is at the next table, and Andres Segovia is expected later on. I begin with a good salad of endive, arugula and walnuts, go on to an elegant duck with fresh raspberries. The food is so fine I am tempted to go talk to the cook, but unfortunately I've got to go talk about cooks instead.

Downey's, 1305 State St., Santa Barbara, (805) 966-5006.

WEDNESDAY

I wake up cheerful, remembering that I am to have lunch with a carnivorous old friend who is in from out of town. I have promised to take him to Taylor's for what I've been told is a a great steak.

The place is so dark that I trip as I walk in from the sunlight. When my eyes finally adjust, I discover red leather booths shaped like horseshoes and a big bar draped with lots of people. Much as I appreciate the atmosphere, however, the steaks are a disappointment. My friend's porterhouse is thin and tough; at $14.75, it is not a bargain. My hamburger ($3.65) is remarkably symmetrical, very meaty, and a bit too finely ground for my taste. I am disappointed; this is a place that I would like to love.

Taylor's Prime Steaks, 3361 West 8th St., Los Angeles, 382-8449.

The Reluctant Gourmet is less reluctant than usual; I've been spending so much time out of town that he is almost eager to go out to eat. When I promise to take him to his favorite restaurant, he replies, "You mean McDonald's?" but he perks up when I tell him that I mean the Grill. There is no place that makes him happier.

There is something very masculine about the clean, spare room and the snappy service. The place is noisy, but the fish is always perfectly fresh, perfectly grilled. They have excellent salads (both Cobb and Caesar), and even things that sound suspicious--the linguine with clams, for example--turn out to be made with fine light pasta, fresh clams and lots of garlic. "I don't see why we can't eat here every night," says the Reluctant Gourmet. As an answer, I show him the bill.

The Grill, 9560 Dayton Way, Beverly Hills, 276-0615.

THURSDAY

Reporter John Dreyfuss and I are in Claremont, working on another neighborhood report; they run periodically in View (this one appeared Thursday). During a typical day of research we often eat six or seven meals, so we try to limit ourselves to little tastes. But when we meet at Walter's, at 9 a.m., the big lamb burritos, served with fresh salsa and round slices of deep-fried, batter-dipped potatoes, are so good that we devour what is on our plates. This is a local hangout, and the people drinking coffee all around us seem to think it's a rather odd breakfast. Perhaps, but it's a good one.

Walter's, 310 N. Yale, Claremont, (714) 946-8315.

After a whole day of eating the very idea of dinner seems a little bit ridiculous. But then we wander down an alley and discover a group of people waiting in line; when we peek thorough the unmarked door we discover the most enchanting restaurant. People sit at long tables beneath trompe l'oeil paintings that make you feel you're in an Italian barn. There is something so festive about the whole scene that my appetite returns.

"Red or white?" asks the proprietor, pouring out the wine. "Red or white?" asks the waitress, handing around big bowls of steaming pasta. The food is simple but delicious, and the meal of bread, salad, wine and pasta costs a flat $5.75. Tuesday-Thursday are pasta nights; on the weekends a five-course Italian dinner costs $13.75. The place is hard to find, so be prepared to ask for directions; it's worth a search.

La Piccoletta, 138 N. Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont, (714) 624-1373.

FRIDAY

"I want to know how a pro does it," insists the critic for a college paper, calling me for the fourth time. He won't believe that eating with me is a lot like eating with anybody else, so I agree to meet him for lunch at La Serre. Half the tables are covered with little plaques saying "Reserved for Mr. So and So," and my companion seems disappointed when we are not given star treatment. The airy room is, in fact, sprinkled with stars.

We start with fine fettuccine with parsley and goat cheese, and a disappointing salad containing, among other things, tasteless tomatoes and overcooked asparagus. "Well?" the critic keeps asking. Then we have red snapper in an unimpressive anchovy sauce, and a quite lovely warm lobster salad. We each have a fruit tart for dessert, and the bill, without a sip of wine, comes to $85. My friend demands an instant appraisal, so I say the first thing that comes to my mind: "It's awfully expensive."

La Serre, 12969 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 990-0500.

High-powered places like that make me long for a certain comfortable coziness, so I tell the Reluctant Gourmet to meet me at Pierre's Los Feliz Inn. He takes one look at the inviting open fireplace and the iron grill work and says, "It feels like a cross between a fancy restaurant and a basement rec room." The food, and the prices, bridge the same gap; there is the safety of steak, the excitement of unusual fish and game. The service is good, the food entirely reliable, and at the end of a week on the road, this is the sort of place that makes you glad to be home.

Pierre's Los Feliz Inn, 2138 Hillhurst Ave., Los Angeles, 663-8001.

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