AS THE TABLES TURN
“How many meals a week do you eat out?” is probably the question I am asked most often. The answer is “about 10,” although there are weeks when it may be as few as five and others when I have (truly) eaten every breakfast, lunch and dinner out.
“Are there really that many good new restaurants?” is inevitably the next question. The answer is an unequivocal no: Many turn out to be not good enough to review well (nor big enough to review badly)--and a large number of them aren’t even new. Restaurants change so much--and so often--that keeping current is a job in itself. The place you loved last year may now be terrible. The place you loved last year, in fact, may now have a new name, a new look or a whole new menu.
A NEW NAME
Remember Orlando-Orsini, that restaurant that sat sleekly on Pico Boulevard just as it starts to chug up the hill to Century City? Many people loved the place, although I must admit that I was not one of them. In any case, that’s history. Orlando is gone and the restaurant has now become Osteria Romana Orsini, which claims to have “true Roman cooking and a wonderful, up, sportiva Italian atmosphere!”
It does indeed have a wonderful Italian atmosphere. It looks like one of those warm little restaurants in Trastevere, filled with lots of wood and conversation and tables laden with great-looking food. The restaurant looks so thoroughly lived in that as soon as you walk in you can imagine sitting there all evening, breaking bread and passing a bottle of wine across the table to your friends.
Reality, however, does not cooperate with this vision; the bread is discouraging and there are too few bottles of good inexpensive wine on the list. And although the table filled with antipasti looked exactly like what you’d find in a small Roman tavern, the $8 combination we tasted was pretty hit-and-miss. A salad made of sliced raw baby artichokes and slivers of cheese was a definite hit, but the fuzzy fried baby artichokes missed. I liked the marinated peppers and the sliced salame, but I really disliked the oysters topped with a tomato sauce reeking of burnt garlic.
The pasta dishes were more impressive. I particularly liked zitoni alla sora nuccia , long elbows of pasta topped with a lively combination of three kinds of cheese, tomatoes and earthy black olives.
Main courses include some of the usual Italian dishes (a good veal chop, a tasty slice of thinly pounded beef called battuta ) and a number of Roman specialties. Beans and sausage turned out to be a sort of Italian cassoulet ; not the perfect thing for summer, perhaps, but thoroughly satisfying.
We already have a great number of fine Italian restaurants, but Osteria Romana Orsini is something a little different. The food here is hearty and homey without being corny. If only the service were warmer; the owner and the waiters were so busy dancing attendance on the celebrity at the next table that they had little attention to spare for us.
Osteria Romana Orsini, 9575 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (213) 277-6050. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, for dinner Monday-Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking. All major cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$65.
A NEW LOOK
When L’Escoffier opened in 1958, it prided itself on being “the most expensive restaurant in town.” It’s been a long time since that’s been the case, but it continues to be one of the few grown-up places where you can dance while you’re dining. And although the restaurant was thoroughly redecorated last year, the dance floor was left intact.
What did change is the color scheme, which was brightened to a soft peach, and the general look of the room, which has been made more modern. Even so, walking into this room with its tall silver epergnes filled with flowers, its live orchestra and its waiters bending over every table fiddling with flames, you feel that you’ve walked right into a ‘40s movie.
The food does little to dispel this illusion; although there is the occasional lapse into modernity (smoked tuna with ginger sauce as an appetizer or a perfectly awful hot spinach salad with smoked duck), this menu is for the most part formidably French and unquestionably classical.
This is the sort of froufrou food that nouvelle cuisine reacted against. Sauces abound. Among the appetizers, which include snails and morels in puff pastry, sauteed foie gras with brioche , and quenelles in Champagne sauce, is a lovely oyster timbale, a sort of oyster quenelle paired with poached oysters and served in a light watercress sauce. (The sole quenelles , unfortunately, were a little heavy.)
The main courses include the things you’d expect: Chateaubriand, rack of lamb, steak Diane. All arrive accompanied by extravagant vegetables: perfectly cooked asparagus, artichoke bottoms filled with purees; some even come with pommes souffles . Luxury is the order of the evening. Filet of sole is beautifully poached and topped with caviar in a light cream sauce. Order a pepper steak and the waiter flames it in front of you. Order a lobster and the waiter will bring it to the table, wrap the beast up in a napkin and painstakingly crack it into effortless edibility. The service is quite spectacular; our lobster, unfortunately, was overcooked.
When dessert time arrives, an enormous cart filled with pastries rolls up to your table. The pastries look better than they taste. I’d avoid the cart altogether and order either a souffle, strawberries Escoffier or crepes suzette . The show is the main thing here. The room may have a brand-new look, but this remains one of the most old-fashioned restaurants in town.
Eating at L’Escoffier is like turning the clock back to a time when good restaurants required that men wear ties and women take change on a trip to the powder room. It’s nice that all fine restaurants are no longer like this, but as you look around the room and sway to the music, you can’t help feeling grateful that this place is still around.
L’Escoffier, in the Beverly Hilton, 9876 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (213) 274-7777. Open for dinner nightly. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards. Diner for two, food only, $60-$134. A NEW MEAL
As we swing into summer, more and more restaurants are jumping onto the brunch bandwagon. The latest to do so is Columbia Bar and Grill, which served its very first brunch last Sunday.
If you don’t live on the Westside, this will come as good news, for brunch on the Eastside has been primarily confined to hotels. And although Columbia may be at the busy intersection of Sunset and Gower, there is a secret garden behind that plain brick wall. It’s pleasant inside too, for the airy atrium is now dominated by a cheerful Hockney painting, which is a very pleasing thing to see so early in the morning.
This is not, blessedly, one of those enormous buffets that leave you sleepy and full for the rest of the day. There is a menu to order from, and it offers a number of nice options. Steak and eggs, French toast, fruit plates with yogurt, eggs Benedict, smoked salmon with bagels all make an appearance. Best of all are the fat crunchy crab cakes served with eggs and potatoes. The table is laden with butter, jam, a basket heaped with croissants and terrific little mini-muffins, which were a big hit with the toddler I took along. Juice or Domaine Chandon Champagne is included in the price of the meal.
This may not be the best brunch in town, but it is certainly a wonderful new way to while away a Sunday morning.
(The best brunch? For my money, Michael’s has that honor. A recent Sunday brunch there, despite pretty poor service, was astonishingly delicious. The French toast was the best I’ve ever eaten, poached salmon was perfect and the barbecued pork tenderloin sandwich a delight.) Columbia Bar and Grill, 1448 N. Gower St., Hollywood , (213) 461-8800. Sunday brunch for two, with Champagne, $20-$30.
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