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CHEZ HELENE: A SOUPCON OF FRANCE

Picture a little brick cottage with a peaked roof, wooden shutters, daisies and a white picket fence. Imagine garden tables, then two rooms inside: one luminous, the other dark and cool. Add wood beamed ceilings, armoires, pewter plates, rustic walls, a pretty Chinese rug. Yes, Chez Helene is that pretty, that French. I almost forgot I was in Beverly Hills until a well-known movie director walked in wearing tennis clothes.

“Don’t look now,” I said to my lunch date. “Shall I pull out my compact?” she said. “Well, sure but don’t let your soup get cold.” She glanced in her rear-view mirror, then snapped the compact shut. That onion soup was soulful full-bodied stuff. I stared longer at the director as my appetizer, a caloric salmon mousse was merely timid and ladylike smooth. But in this realm of the senses, on this brilliantly sunny day, food was only one aspect of the show. As on leisurely vacation lunches, sounds took on new prominence; the splendid soft classical music, even ice and water being poured, all became part of the ambiance.

One chicken entree sang, the other didn’t. The first, a hot poulet was succulent and earthy with tiny Nicoise olives, yellow peppers, peeled tomatoes and herbes de Provence served with beautifully cooked, pearly rice. Despite the crispest of lettuce and great garlic dressing, a cold chicken salad was completely without elan : stringy, unattractive and served with unannounced grated cheese.

Desserts were simply wonderful. A chomeur aux framboises, described as an upside-down cake, was grandmotherly, warm, topped with fresh raspberries and served with a little blue pitcher of cream. Mocha torte, a densely textured concoction of lady fingers soaked in Triple Sec, coffee, chocolate and whipped cream, was a ne plus ultra cake. Tea was decorously served in plump sang de boeuf pots.

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Would the magic be there at night without that glorious light streaming in? The sky was actually violet the evening we returned and we noticed that even the trees on Beverly Drive had been shaped a la francais e. We started with a rich, buttery smooth chicken-liver pate spiked with cognac; we much preferred the hot, crisp rolls swathed in peach linen to the dry, ordinary slices of French bread served with it. Green salad was fragrant with fresh dill, the fat asparagus came with a rakish tarragon mayonnaise.

The next course was steadfast if not inventive cuisine. “Ah yes, I remember it well,” was the feeling it evoked. A generous, sauteed, satiny trout was covered with toasted almond scales. Bouillabaisse, a special, was exquisitely fresh. A spicy bisque rather than a broth, it was filled with mussels, clams, scallops, large shrimp and firm white fish. The accompanying rouille packed its garlic punch. Again, we wished there was really great French bread instead of the insipid slices served with the soup.

We tried the chomeur au caramel and the poire Belle Helene and decided Chez Helene succeeded best at desserts. The caramel upside-down cake stopped all discussion, it was so good. The Poire Belle Helene is really a spoiled child’s dessert: a giant dish of firm-fleshed pears with good vanilla ice cream, real whipped cream and fudge.

Chez Helene, with its kind service, modest wine list and murmuring customers is a very warm and lovely place. I enjoyed pretending I was in the French countryside. That is, until a bit of fudge appeared on the front of my white shirt. A man at the next table motioned to me. “Whose is it?” he asked. I wasn’t sure what he meant. He pointed at his stained tie. “Karl Lagerfeld,” he said sadly. “Mustard sauce. C’est la vie.”

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Oui . Dining Out in Beverly Hills.

Chez Helene, 267 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills. (213) 276-1558. Lunch, Tuesday s -Saturday s ; dinner, Tuesday s -Sunday s . Closed Mondays. Reservations recommended. All major credit cards. Dinner for two: (food only): $30-$60.


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