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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Mason’s Offers Its Patrons Both Elegant Simplicity and Chancy Novelty

Here they come, right on the dot of 8:10. Walter Matthau and party. A tiny, pale person who looks a lot like Joan Rivers and party. Morgan Mason, the son of James Mason and husband of the singer Belinda Carlisle, and party. They all look at home.

Well, Mason actually is at home--he owns Mason’s--but his restaurant does look like a fancy residence. Here’s the living room: sofas and coffee tables, grand piano, fireplace complete with family photos on the mantle, wet bar. Here’s the library (looks as if somebody subscribes to Reader’s Digest Condensed Editions), filled with tables, like a home library pressed into dining-room service at holiday time. In a real home, the tables would be card tables, and as a matter of fact these are a little wobbly.

And here’s the dining room, wonderfully expansive, with a soothing mural of an English country manor, woods, stream, etc. Next to it is . . . well, possibly a tennis court with some umbrella-covered tables in it. It’s hard to get into at lunchtime, but tends to go begging at dinner.

And finally, here are the butlers, I mean the waiters. They do seem butler-like, with nothing of the usual L.A. waiter’s air of killing time until he gets a real job. Alert and discreet, they’re among the best waiters in town.

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But Mason’s has been going through changes since The Times reviewed it last May. For a while it was closed for both lunch and dinner on Sundays and Mondays; beginning this week it’ll be open every day, but only for dinner. And the menu, which has always wavered peculiarly between elegant simplicity and somewhat chancy novelty--as if this were the Bellamy household of “Upstairs, Downstairs” and Mrs. Bridges were trying her hand at California Cuisine--has changed, too. To bring us up to date:

The unusual relish tray of pickled vegetables and breads, including a wonderfully rich grilled olive-flavored bread, is still there, but apparently no longer free in the bar, where you only get nuts and canapes.

Adios to some of the weirder inspirations, such as eggplant stir-fried with broccoli and tofu, or grilled salmon with mint and caviar, or foie gras with corn and arugula. The odd tortilla soup is still on, though, more or less chunks of tortilla floating in an enchilada sauce thinned with cream.

And Mason’s continues to come up with new odd ideas. Its salad of shredded artichoke is a bad example, merely an unpleasant texture with no flavor, unless you count the accompanying slabs of Parmesan cheese. On special one day at lunch there was a salad that was a semi-good example: duck, pasta, barley, Swiss chard, fresh peas, green onions and soy sauce. It worked, in an odd way, to combine the earthy flavors of duck, barley, chard and soy sauce, but it was like a painting entirely done in shades of brown.

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Fortunately, a number of the best things have remained, starting with the buttery mashed potatoes. In particular, the grilled veal chop, once available only on special, has become a regular: mild white veal in a delicate and surprising sage and mustard sauce.

The best of the entrees, though, even better than the veal chop, is a New York steak with a wonderful hash of dried mushrooms and sweet peppers and plenty of meat glaze sauce. It’s really a delight, though if you quail at the $30 tariff you may never be totally at home at Mason’s.

Otherwise the best things still tend to be simple. Simple fried whitefish, simple grilled chicken breast with a soothing pasta in garlicky tomato sauce, simple grilled ahi with some Mexican salsa on top.

Of course there are exquisite little vegetables: baby beets, a little slab of gratin potatoes like a smallish book. The menu still has a long list of vegetable side dishes, including “melted eggplant"--an interesting, rather Provencale combination of tomatoes with diced eggplant cooked until it is meltingly soft.

Dessert is still a problem. Tiramisu sounds like an unpromising choice in this sort of restaurant, but it’s actually pretty good, made with flavorful mascarpone cheese and a little Frangelico as well as espresso flavoring the sponge cake. The pastries are often faintly lacking--a marjolaine with delicious nuts in the crust should have been crunchier. A peanut butter torte that was virtually the same as marjolaine with a layer of peanut-butter-flavored butter cream was rather better.

But the kitchen tends to wander into the Twilight Zone even at dessert. For some reason it often combines chocolate with sour flavors: chocolate mousse cake with a sharp raspberry sauce, rather cheesy chocolate cheesecake. Even a hazelnut pie with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce, which sounds as if it couldn’t lose, has some discordant orange flavoring thrown in. It tastes as if you’re eating two different Cadbury’s chocolate bars at once.

Mason’s is a pleasant place, a warm, expansive place. If only the old family cook could settle on the style.

Suggested dishes: New York steak $30; grilled veal chop $26; tiramisu $6.

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Mason’s, 11500 San Vicente Blvd . , West Los Angeles. (213) 826-5666. Open for dinner daily at 6 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. American Express, Mastercard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $58 to $76.


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