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MUSE-INGS : To Review or Not to Review--That Is the Question

Muse, 7360 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles , (213) 934-4400. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, for dinner Monday-Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking. American Express, Visa, MasterCard accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $40-$80.

“Have you ever,” asked my friend, “known a restaurant to improve after a review?” He looked morosely at a dish of fettuccine tossed with smoked chicken, artichoke, sun-dried tomatoes and assorted greens in a hazelnut vinaigrette. There was so much vinegar on it that he coughed as he poked a fork into the tangled pasta. He lifted it to his mouth and assayed a second, tentative bite. “Because this,” he said decisively, “could surely use improvement.”

We were discussing which restaurants are worth reviewing. “New restaurants,” said the friend, his fork straying away from the pasta to a tasty but tiny appetizer of charred rare tuna with avocado, mango and cilantro, “that goes without saying. After all, people are curious about them.” He chewed the tuna appreciatively. “Really successful restaurants,” I added, dipping a spoon into a pallid “Provencal” fish soup that had none of the warmth of its name. It was thin, a vegetable soup really, in a watery, faintly fishy stock with a scattering of unpleasantly chewy clams. Its only claim to its Provencal name was the hint of saffron in the stock. I swallowed the soup and added, “Especially when you feel that those restaurants are undeservedly successful.”

My friend nodded, his moving fork hovering over a “strudel” of fresh crab meat and spinach. It was more like a bourek really, in its thin filo wrapping, but it was quite delicious. “Great ethnic discoveries,” he said, “that you’ve somehow missed.” “Absolutely,” I agreed,” dipping into a salad that sounded Greek. Made of feta cheese, cucumbers and tomatoes, the salad would have been unbeatable if made with really good ingredients. This one, however, was salty and sadly dull. “But on the other hand, there’s no point in writing about a dreadful little ethnic place that’s already empty. Why tell people to stay away from a place that nobody goes to?”

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Muse, the restaurant we were in, was not new. It was surely not a great ethnic discovery. And although it is filled, night after night, with a completely chic crowd, you could hardly call it obnoxiously successful. These people are well-groomed, well-dressed and so altogether with it that you keep turning around to stare at the people who have just come in. But you can almost always join them; reservations are not hard to come by.

“Why,” asked my friend, now starting on striped bass in a crackling coat of pepper and mustard, “are we here in the first place?” I tasted his fish, which the waiter had recommended because “it doesn’t taste like fish.” The waiter was right that the fish wasn’t fishy, but it did have a pleasantly mild flavor and a creamy smoothness to the flesh. It was certainly better than the skinny slice of Hawaiian tuna that struggled under a sauce that tasted exactly like miso. “Because,” I replied, “for the past few weeks I’ve been getting calls about the wonderful new chef here. Her name is Vickie Messick, she is 27 years old, and caller after caller has told me she is young and talented.”

But after three visits to this extremely arty restaurant, I still wasn’t sure whether Muse was a restaurant that ought to be reviewed. It is certainly extraordinary looking, from the eye-catching modern architecture to the huge silhouette of an empty man that dominates the room. It is a very L.A. sort of place, filled with people who may not be movie stars but look like they are. And they are all happily, noisily, putting away their $8 appetizers, their $14 pastas and their $20 entrees. But this expensive food is frustrating; some is very good, but much of it belongs in a museum of dishes that should never have been made.

Take the grilled Creole sausage on spinach fettuccine with cumin, thyme, red onions and Indian cucumber salad. The sausage was so awful I couldn’t swallow it, and the combination was simply silly. That smoked chicken fettuccine also belonged in the museum; in fact, you could have put our plate right into the exhibition. We left 99% of it sitting untouched, but not a single waiter stopped to ask why it wasn’t being eaten. Charbroiled mahi mahi with blackberry port butter and grilled Belgian endive was another museum candidate; the sauce simply decimated the poor fish. And why in the middle of summer must it come with the inevitable carrots? Carpaccio of filet mignon with mild horseradish cream was a fine example of ruining a good dish; the meat was thick and fine, but carpaccio cries out for something more forceful than this meek cream. There was even a dessert for the show: chocolate banana pie with whipped cream in a truly terrible crust.

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Other dishes, however, were impressive. Shrimp with sweet and sour nectarine coulis and deep-fried spaghetti looked like a picture in a food magazine. Three large grilled shrimp were arranged around small puddles of a sweet nectarine puree that buzzed with heat. Amber curls of pasta punctuated the plate. A large Caesar salad had the biting sting of raw garlic. Marinated Black Angus filet mignon was a generous hunk of meat on a generous bed of chanterelles. And a huge plate of blue and yellow corn-tortilla nachos with guacamole, salsa and sour cream kept an entire table full of people happy and quiet for quite some time.

“So,” asked my friend, his fork alternating between a light and appealing cheesecake and a richly dense flourless chocolate cake, “are you going to review the restaurant?”

“Do you think I should?” I asked.

He nodded assent. “Yes. This has the possibility of being a terrific restaurant. Just think how great those lettuce tacos with minced chicken in peanut sauce would be if they had a little more texture and a little more spice. It’s such a great looking place--and it has so much potential.”

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Indeed it does.


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