Les Anges, 14809 Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Monica, (213) 454-1331. Dinner only, Tuesday-Sunday. Beer and wine. Valet parking in gas station across the street. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $50-$70.
My family still wonders when I am going to grow up and get a real job. As I enter my 12th year of restaurant criticism, they continue to ask me when I plan to do something serious with my life. "Don't you get tired of all those restaurants?" they wonder. "How much can you say about food?" The answers are "not really" and "a lot"--but there's one thing more: There are still so many surprises.
Consider Les Anges. The first time I went there was just after the restaurant opened five years ago. The evening began badly; my companion, a friend with a bad back, found the chairs uncomfortable. When we asked if we could move to one of the empty booths, we were frigidly informed that they were all reserved. Things went downhill from there.
The menu was written entirely in French and the waiter stood there, interminably hopping from foot to foot as he translated dishes whose prices for hors d'oeuvres ranged from $8 to $25. Entrees ran as high as $27. He was one of those waiters who thinks he knows infinitely more about food than you ever will; he therefore found it unnecessary to let us know when the kitchen was out of certain ingredients, and merely substituted dishes at will. I liked a lot of the food, but I found much of it as pretentious as the man who was serving it. Above all, when the check came, I found it very hard to swallow.
"Can this be the same restaurant?" I asked my friend a few weeks ago. We were sitting in a cozy gray-and-white bar that gives you the feeling that you have set out to sea and are being gently rocked in the lounge of a large yacht. A pianist with a Keith Jarrett complex played soft music. We were waiting for some friends, late as usual, and when we went to ask the maitre d' not to give our table away, he was reassuring.
"Don't worry," he soothed. "Have some wine. Your table is waiting." The gentle music was riding on the air, the sound of conversation was kept to a muted buzz, and the place seemed serene and welcoming.
"It's so quiet in here," I said when our friends finally appeared and we were led to our table. "I know," replied the maitre d'. "We've got a tape of Rebecca's we can put on if this is too quiet for you." He smiled and handed us the menus. And this was the time for a big shock. None of the hors d'oeuvres was more than $7.75, and the main courses ran from $13 to $20. Clearly, there has been a serious change here.
"Well," said Robert Drapkin, maitre d' and partner, "I've always loved this restaurant but I couldn't afford to eat here." So when he and Robert Simon (of Cafe Jacoulet fame) bought Les Anges (the other major partner is chef Patrick Jamon, who has been here since the beginning), they immediately lowered the prices 25% to 40%.
Many of the dishes are similar to the ones that were once here; a couple are the same. But most have been pared down, simplified. Oysters served warm on a bed of rock salt used to come in three different sauces; they are now served in a single elegant bath of Champagne and julienned leeks. This is not a new dish, but it is beautifully done, the oysters delicately poached in their own shells. There was once a " salade riche " on the menu, a luxurious combination of scallops, crayfish, lobster and foie gras . I'm happier with the simple composed vegetable salads now served--one day a rather wonderful autumnal tangle of small haricots verts with matsutake and oyster mushrooms, bits of tomatoes concasses in an assertive vinaigrette. Artichokes barigoule , baby artichokes in a delicate vegetable sauce, remain from the old menu, and they are as delightful as always.
The hand-written menu changes daily, but there are some constants. Among the hors d'oeuvres you will usually find ravioli in lobster sauce. I found the sauce quite rich and strong and wonderful, made, I think, from of the lobster shells. But the pasta itself was a bit heavier than it might have been, the filling not as light as some I've had. There is usually another pasta dish; one night this was topped with delicately cooked squid, the meat as soft as velvet. Unfortunately, the pasta was also soft, squishy in fact.
Among the other dishes I recognize from the past is lobster in the style of Georges Garin, a man who figured out a way to infuse the beast with the flavor of herbs; you may never have such a delicately tasty lobster. Another unique dish is a very thin slice of salmon on a rich and meaty soubise of onions, covered with red wine sauce and then quickly placed under the salamander and cooked with extreme speed. I thought this dish was brilliant: The flesh comes out buttery and soft while the fish is easily capable of standing up to the strong flavors of the sauces. For anybody who loves sashimi, this dish is a revelation.
After the salmon, the best fish dish I've had is sea bass in an anchovy, butter and garlic sauce, topped with scallions and crushed tomatoes. This was a thick slab of fish, crusty on the outside, undercooked within; the flavors of the fish and the sauce married perfectly.
I think the chef generally does better with fish than with meat. Venison in a Zinfandel and green peppercorn sauce was fine but lamb (in a lively garlic sauce) was sadly overcooked. Chicken in a sauce of jalapeno and ginger was a tasty and interesting dish, but it needed a little something to bring forward the flavor of the fowl. The only real disaster I have encountered was Norwegian salmon (ordering this anywhere at the moment is a good bet; the quality has been extraordinary), topped with a salmon and scallop mousse and served in a bright green, superbly flavorful sorrel sauce. The fish and the sauce were a treat, but the mousse on top was a rubbery little dome that I scraped off and left sitting on the plate.
Vegetables here are rich and absolutely superb. I've been served a puree of carrots that must have been half butter, a gratin of potatoes bathed in cream and garlic, and one night some Belgian endive topped with Gruyere cheese that was entirely irresistible.
Desserts have always been good here; they still are. But most things at Les Anges have undergone a change. The restaurant has grown up. The waiters are no longer snide, the service is certainly pleasant and the bill is no longer a terrible shock. And yet, looking at the menu, I find myself wondering if Jamon is a little disappointed. He once worked at Le Vivarois in Paris, and when he came here he was doing complicated dishes like pigeon en salmis , sea urchin souffle served in the shell and chausson aux truffes , deep-fried bites of foie gras in a truffled sauce. He was wrapping oysters in lettuce to garnish sole, and otherwise indulging in a classic taste for fantasy and luxury.
Now his cooking is toned down, more geared to local tastes. I like the simple restraint of the food. I like the prices. And yet when I taste a dish like John Dory with lobster and Champagne sauces, I can't help wondering if in his dreams the chef secretly scatters caviar across the fish.