Ma Be, 8722 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles. (213) 276-6223. Open for lunch Monday-Saturday, for dinner nightly and for Sunday brunch. Valet parking. Full bar. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $42-$72.
If Ma Be were a woman, her slip would never show. She would invariably say the right thing, her children would be loved by all their teachers, and if you were her friend you’d drop in at her house at odd hours in hopes of once finding it a mess. But of course you never would.
Women like that are paragons, of course, but they are very hard to love.
Ma Be is much the same. You find yourself admiring all the details, secretly hoping that you’ll discover a mistake--and wondering why you aren’t more impressed.
Walk in the door and you can hardly stop yourself from saying, “What a charming room.” And it keeps on being charming--past the slinky, inviting bar; past the banquettes covered in beautiful fabric; and on into the dining room with its large windows, patterned rug and beamed ceiling.
Go up the stairs, where there’s a room with a fireplace and an outside terrace, and the charm is unabated. With its low lights and wall sculptures, it is all terribly, terribly tasteful--and just a little bit anonymous. It’s like the pictures of rich people’s houses that you see in shelter magazines: You can’t help feeling that in his heart the decorator really believes that the presence of people ruins his rooms.
Sink into the seats--aren’t they comfortable? Wait for the waiter--he won’t be long. These waiters are all polished fellows (OK, OK, I was secretly thrilled when one said “How’s everybody doin’ tonight?” as he dealt out the discreetly wrapped gray menus), and the service is invariably attentive. Water glasses are kept full; wine is poured on cue; dishes come and go without a glitch. But as soon as you open the menu the soul of the restaurant is revealed.
It looks like the result of market research. No trendy trick has been left untried. It’s as if the owner gathered a focus group of upscale eaters and asked them what dishes would bring them in the door. Then he hired a good French chef (Claude Segal) and a good Italian chef (Sandro Marcato) and told them what to make.
If you’re part of the radicchio revolution, you’ll find that no craving has been left unfulfilled. In addition to all your favorite herbs (fennel, purple basil, saffron, cilantro), you’ll find pasta in every color (including basic black). There’s carpaccio , of course, as well as buffalo mozzarella, all the latest fish fads, salads by the score and mesquite-grilled meats.
The word crispy occurs no fewer than four times on the page, and if you’re on a diet you’ll be happy to know that the restaurant has thoughtfully starred those dishes that are made without oil or butter.
This is not to say there’s anything wrong with the food. It is, almost without exception, very good. Goat cheese, basil and bell pepper flan with radicchio, arugula and fennel sounds like a joke of a dish--until you taste it. The heaviness of the cheese has been cut so that this lovely little round, surrounded by its crown of greens, is light and very appealing.
Sweet carrot and ginger cream soup (a dish that fans of chef Segal may remember from Four Oaks) is, as advertised, fresh and sweet and creamy.
The salmon, watercress and mango salad--a little still life in pastels with a pansy on the top--would be good too, if only the mango was ripe.
Eggplant comes sliced very thinly, wrapped tightly around a leaf of radicchio, which is wrapped around a sliver of smoked mozzarella. The carpaccio isn’t hand-pounded, but it’s good meat nicely served with a heap of artichoke slivers and shavings of Parmesan cheese.
And if the lobster and crayfish salad turns out to be more salad than seafood, it’s a good salad-- and a very pretty one.
This is, in fact, remarkably pretty food--when you can see it. At night the light on the upstairs patio is so low that you are virtually eating in the dark. I ended up lighting matches to get a look at what was on my plate. When the avocado and salmon terrine finally floated into view, it occurred to me that the dish--which didn’t seem to have much flavor--would probably taste better if you could watch it while you eat. It is that pretty.
It would also be a shame to miss the sight of the vegetable ravioli, which comes sitting on bright purees of red and yellow peppers, the half-moon shapes so fully stuffed that the colors of the fillings shine faintly through the wrappers. Even in the dark the dish is absolutely delicious.
But the best dish to savor out there in the darkness has got to be garlic linguini, a dish so lacking in timidity that you would have to be smell-blind not to appreciate it.
My favorite of the main courses is crisp sweetbreads topped with tiny grapes the size of currants. The menu word crispy is not being taken in vain here--but inside that crunchy cover is a very tender morsel of meat.
An excellent veal chop--an impressive piece of protein--comes with shiitake mushrooms and a wonderful little round of buttery pommes anna. Segal is doing a takeoff on a dish he did at Four Oaks-- red snapper coated in coarse black peppers and served in a pinot noir sauce. It is set on top of noodles and sliced leeks. But where the dish was brilliant at Four Oaks--the sea bass he used there standing up to the peppers and the sauce acting as a balancing agent--here the fish simply disappears under the fire of all those peppers.
Garlic-roasted rack of lamb is garlicky and good. If you don’t mind your steak arriving in slices, you’ll like the New York steak with its cute little architectural arrangement of thick French fries. In fact, of all the dishes I’ve tried, the only ones I haven’t liked are the peppered fish, the veal shank (slices of very gristly meat) and a duck that came out not merely crisp but cooked to a crisp.
And I did think that calling the upside down cake of buttery spinach topped with lemony pears that came with the dry duck a “marmalade,” was, well, a bit far-fetched.
Most of the desserts, according to one waiter, are not made on the premises. He said the restaurant claimed credit for the tarts tatin (these come in both apple and pear); they are nothing to brag about. He gave the kitchen credit for the creme brulee , which tastes primarily like roasted marshmallows. There is, however, a very dense and satisfying chocolate cake; our waiter said he thought it came from Michel Richard. He said he wasn’t sure.
And I’m not sure why, despite the fact that I like the food and find no fault with the service, Ma Be leaves me slightly cold. I think it has something to do with feeling that, for all its good qualities, this is a restaurant with very little soul.
Recommended dishes: vegetable ravioli, $6.50; goat cheese flan, $7; carrot and ginger soup, $4.50; veal chop, $22; crispy sweetbreads, $17.50; rack of lamb, $22.50.