A Fertile Imagination Sprouts at Gardens

Gardens, in the Four Seasons Hotel, 300 S. Doheny Drive, Los Angeles, (213) 273-2222. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily, and Sunday brunch. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $55-$100.

"Rich people eat here." That is the message of the dining room at the posh Gardens restaurant in the new Four Seasons Hotel. Opulent orchids are everywhere, the fabric-covered walls are softly padded, the banquettes lined with huge gray pillows. Liveried waiters hover solicitously. You wish you'd worn your pearls.

And so, when they opened last spring, it was rather a shock to discover that they had a menu filled with dishes you had never heard of. Things like "Sephardic boyos," "Pope's hats," "briks" and "ramps" were sprinkled merrily about that document. You looked once, twice, a third time. Then you ordered everything in sight and sat back for a parade of chef Lydia Shire's fascinating food.

Was anybody really surprised when Shire and the Four Seasons parted ways? I doubt it. The food and the room were not dancing to the same tune. Shire was doing a terrific tango while the dining room wanted to waltz.

The smart money sat back and waited for the stately food that was surely coming to grace this dining room. I confidently expected the management to bring in an old-line hotel chef who would serve up filet of sole meuniere , double loin lamb chops and chateaubriand.

They sure fooled me. The new chef, Michel Huchet, is a young Frenchman with impeccable credentials. Far from offering steaks and chops, Huchet's menu is even quirkier than Shire's. But where Shire went around the world searching for interesting ideas (no menu has ever been more international), Huchet relies on his imagination. And what he comes up with are dishes like foie gras with wild gooseberry nectar and warm dill brioche, or calf's liver with port sauce, candied onion and nopal cactus. This may be a new menu, but it's sure not a waltz!

Whether, of course, you really want to eat foie gras with all those things is another matter. The heart of the matter, in fact, for every meal makes me ask what all these exotic ingredients are doing together on the same plate.

Consider an appetizer of fresh scallion pasta (bright green, but doughy and inelegantly made) with smoked gingered duck (large, fatty slices of the breast) in a truffle fumet . Duck, ginger and truffles are not ordinarily three flavors you'd think of putting together, and for good reason: The delicate truffle fumet , which was excellent, simply got overwhelmed by the power of everything else.

Huchet has a fine eye for the visual; his terrine of lobster, Japanese style, is one of the most dramatic dishes I have ever been served. It arrived on a black plate, a picture-perfect square encircled by a sheet of black nori, with thin ribbons of shaved carrot around it. The terrine itself looked like a jeweled mosaic, inset with bright bits of salmon, a snowy circle of lobster, deep-green splashes of marinated spinach. This ornate object was set into a saffron sauce, with glowing dots of caviar scattered throughout it. It was gorgeous. But there was one problem: it just didn't taste very good. The vegetables were all sweetly marinated, and when you finally ruined the arrangement and put your fork to your mouth, you wished you hadn't.

Some of the food even has pretty names. There is a lunch dish called "spaghetti salad with caviar." Who could resist that? Take my advice, however, and do. What appeared was a tangle of cold white spaghetti dotted with little dabs of ossetra caviar. Cold spaghetti always leaves me cold, and this particular version, even without the caviar, was so salty it was simply inedible. I almost never send food back; I made an exception for this dish.

Next it was another breathtakingly pretty plate of food called "veal with avocado orange sauce." It turned out to be thin slices of veal topped with fans of avocado and arranged around a pile of bright-orange pasta. Sitting on top was an incongruous frond of dill. The sauce had a sort of candied orange flavor; it was a good-enough dish but, like much of Huchet's food, too sweet for my taste.

Pasta with scallops in pink ginger sauce, another pretty luncheon dish, was not as sweet as it sounded. But like the first dish, this was topped with dill. Dill with cream and ginger? Why?

It is the constant question about Huchet's food. I ordered "sauteed veal medallions, light spearmint coulis and carmelized alligator pears" one night. I wanted to try carmelized avocados--and I was curious about the pairing of mint with veal. These pears had not a hint of alligator about them. As for the mint--as I suspected, it overpowered the veal.

Lobster with vanilla sauce is also on the menu, a dish that betrays the fact that Huchet once worked with Alain Senderens at L'Archestrate in Paris. Senderens has the ability to make seemingly odd ideas work, but Huchet's version lacks subtlety; it tasted to me like lobster in melted ice cream. Scattered about the plate, like an out-of-place herb garden, were sprigs of chervil, purple basil and rosemary. They would have been happier almost anywhere but here.

One of the more interesting-sounding dishes on the menu is grilled aromatic Chinese duck with mango orange coulis and peppermint. The duck was beautifully cooked, crisp and fatless. But once again the mint with the duck struck me as slightly discordant.

The weekend brunch is one of the more lavish displays I have seen. In addition to the prime rib, the omelets made to order, the steam-table eggs Benedict, etc., there is a table covered with heaps of huge, tenderly cooked shrimp, oysters and clams on the half shell, smoked fish of all sorts.

One of the nicer touches of Shire's tenure here was the bread basket, filled with homemade bread sticks, rich slices of herbed brioche, homemade rolls. Huchet's bread has a more commercial air.

Among the new desserts at Gardens, which include dishes like banana tarte tatin , the only thing that has really knocked me out is a luxurious cold chocolate and Calvados mousse, a sort of ice cream with a college education. It is opulent, a dessert worthy of the richness of the room.

Walking into that room and looking at the menu, you can't help thinking of F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous line. It might have been in just such a room, looking at a menu as strange as this one, that the author was moved to say, "The rich are different than you and me." But when you taste the food, Hemingway's even more famous reply comes readily to mind.

"Yes," he reportedly replied, "they have more money."

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