COU COU LIKE A FOX: A SMALL BUT AMBITIOUS LAIR

A small footnote in the annals of restaurant reviewing: I called the restaurant I was planning to review to make a reservation for my second visit, and was told that the place was closed until further notice. The owners, it seemed, had had an argument with the chef who had left in a huff. A good thing, too, if you ask me.

So it was that at the last minute I rustled up some hungry friends for a dinner at Le Cou Cou, a little bistro on La Cienega just south of L'Orangerie. At the very worst, I figured, we could have decent omelets or fish, which, for some reason (I must have once glanced at a luncheon menu tacked outside) was what I thought Le Cou Cou offered. Or maybe it's all those prancing flamingoes painted on the walls surrounding the patio that gave the impression that the fare inside had to be light stuff.

I was surprised, therefore, walking through the deserted patio, tables unset and in disarray, when I found myself in a snazzy--yet casual--little place, all done up in cool West Hollywood shades of gray, an intimate hideaway that's the exact opposite of the high-decibel, wide-open-spaces, open-kitchen, see-and-be-seen places described by Judith Sims in "Taking the Din With Your Dinner" last Sunday. Here were three small rooms (seating for 60), low ceilings--a place for conversation, peace and, it turned out, some very good food.

"This is the most ambitious menu I've seen in a place this size," said one friend. Ambitious it was, and full of temptation, the kind of menu that increases your appetite instead of confounding it. I wanted everything: fettuccine with golden caviar; goat cheese crepe with sweet onion sauce; salmon sashimi; garlic soup; boneless duckling with Meaux mustard or sweet and sour sauce; braised lamb curry; sweetbreads with lemon sauce; calves liver Bercy--and those were just some of the appetizers and entrees.

The appetizers we did order were all nicely presented and delicious too: the carrot soup, carrotty; the mussels escabeche, cool and tasty; the asparagus vinaigrette, snappy (but not too snappy); the carpaccio, a luscious combination of beef, duck and veal.

But one dish was a knockout: grape vine smoked goat cheese salad: goat cheese wrapped in leaves and herbs and roasted in the oven for a hot minute. How could something that smelled exactly like an ashtray taste so good? It did, though, and once we'd accustomed ourselves to its peculiar burnt-tobacco taste, we were all vying for the last bite. Beneath the slices of goat cheese was a fresh salad of escarole with a dainty vinaigrette dressing. The only thing lacking was a bit of bread that was more interesting than the hard rolls served with dinner.

We were all happy with the entrees prepared by chef/owner Christian Riso, ex of Le St. Germain. The lamb chops had been dipped in a garlicky marinade before being grilled a perfect medium rare; the osso bucco was brought to life with the taste of orange rind. Some thought the halibut was overpowered by its ginger sauce, but the fish itself was nice and fresh. The paella Valenciana (chicken, pork, mussels, squid, shrimp, clams and rice tasting of saffron and the sea) was much too much for one person. It would be a good dish to share, though there's a $2 surcharge for splitting dishes. This night, mashed parsnips, spinach and baby carrots accompanied most entrees.

Best of all was my dish--giant scallops in a meuniere sauce. When our waiter put the dish in front of me, I thought I'd been given medallions of veal instead of scallops. But scallops they were, in appearance and flavor "just like the ones we used to pick near the Channel Islands," said one friend. With all this, we somehow found room for dessert and were glad we had: intense slices of charlotte, white and dark, resting on sauces of strawberry and pecan; creme caramel which was unfortunately runny beneath its burnt sugar shell, but tasted good; and a lovely, summery dessert of meringue topped with vanilla ice cream and strawberry sauce, surrounded by fresh peaches, kiwi and blackberries.

I learned a few things that night:

1. Always call a restaurant to make reservations; the place, for all you know, could be no more.

2. You might very well luck out in choosing the restaurant you go to instead.

Le Cou Cou, 829 N. La Cienega Blvd.; (213) 854-0088. Lunch, Mondays-Fridays, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner, Mondays-Thursdays, 6-11 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 6-12. Closed Sundays. Major credit cards. Full bar. Dinner for two, food only, $40-$65. The restaurant offers a prix fixe dinner, including soup or salad, entree, dessert, coffee and a half bottle of wine, for $25 per person.

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