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Three Blind Meals : Our Critic Does Some Serendipitous Supping

I rarely go out to eat because I’m hungry. Most of the time I go to a restaurant because it is new or newsworthy. Occasionally I go to a restaurant because somebody has called to give me a tip. But every once in a while I go to restaurants for the same reasons that everybody else does--because I am meeting friends for dinner, because I don’t have time to cook, because I am simply in the mood for a good meal. From time to time these meals surprise me. All three of the following did.

St. Estephe’s Fantasy

We rounded a rocky point and looked off the wind-swept coast toward the sea, where the sun glinted so brightly that you had to shade your eyes. There wasn’t a building in sight. It looked like a remote corner of Spain, and we kept imagining that any minute we would spot a little taverna with tables in the front, and we’d go in and eat piles of shrimp with our fingers, followed by roast chicken and green salad with too much vinegar on it, all washed down with harsh red wine. I was still thinking this when the idyll ended and the road spilled down off the Palos Verdes peninsula onto a street lined on both sides by fast food stands.

By then, of course, we were hungry. And still so taken with the fantasy of the seaside restaurant that we didn’t want to eat just anything. And so, although we had no reservations and knew it would cost more money than we wanted to spend, we decided to drive to the nearby St. Estephe for lunch.

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Reservations didn’t seem to be a problem. We were led right into that bright, light, whitewashed room that is, in some ways, a lot like the little taverna I had been holding in my mind. And just as I was thinking how glad I was to be there--no matter what it cost--I got another surprise.

St. Estephe is really reasonable at lunch. The menu is just as interesting as it is at dinner--but the prices are considerably lower.

Soup, for instance, is $2.50. And what soup this is! A big bowl of tomatillo and tomato soup came out in a sort of yin-yang pattern of intense green and red. On the side were deliciously decorative fried tortillas cut out in cactus shapes. A jazzy green salad arrived in a vinaigrette lightly spiked with jalapenos to give it a little extra zip.

Ravioli filled with carne adobada are every bit as delightful as they are at night--but at lunch they only cost $7.75. They come in a red chile ragout and a garlicky goat cheese sauce. Grilled fish was wonderful. But I especially liked the Southwestern version of eggs florentine--creamed spinach sitting on rounds of new potatoes, topped with poached eggs and embellished with a spicy red chile sauce.

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The service was wonderful. There were endless glasses of passion fruit iced tea, and good coffee and dessert. I was suddenly filled with a sense of enormous well being, for this was the sort of meal that lifts your heart, reminds you how good food can taste and makes you happy to be alive. It was all so lovely that I was actually glad to be in Manhattan Beach instead of on a beach in Spain.

St. Estephe, 2640 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Manhattan Beach. (213) 545-1334. Lunch for two, food only, $20-$40.

Munching at Marouch

I was meeting five friends for dinner. Naturally they expected me to come up with the perfect restaurant. It couldn’t be too far away. It couldn’t be too expensive. It had to be a place that would let us linger for a while. On top of that, one of the group didn’t eat meat and another wanted to bring her baby. And everybody, of course, wanted the food to be wonderful.

With some trepidation I finally suggested Marouch. I had heard that this Lebanese restaurant was good, but I had never actually been there. When I saw it, my heart sank. It was one of those places in an East Hollywood mini-mall--those malls where there are never enough parking spaces. The restaurant was almost empty. The music was too loud. The only high chair was in use and the baby began to cry. My friends started giving me dubious looks.

These abated slightly when the waiter--one of the most patient men alive--made the first of many trips to our table. He never stopped smiling. He happily explained the menu and kept us supplied with beer and lemonade and jalab-- a sweet drink perfumed with rose water and topped with pine nuts.

And then he began to bring the food. “I guess you do know what you’re doing after all,” said one friend, his mouth filled with wonderfully smoky baba ghannouj made of eggplant. “Of course,” I said brightly, dipping a piece of pita into a bowl of hummus topped with the large beans that are called fool in the Middle East . I followed that with labneh, a sort of exotic sour cream. And then fattouch, a salad made of torn-up bread and tomatoes and cucumbers.

There were curiously refreshing almonds that had been soaked in water and lemon juice until they were swollen twice their size. And plates of bright pink pickled turnips with olives and chiles. Tabbouleh --parsley and bulgur wheat salad--was dressed with the perfect mixture of olive oil and lemon juice and was a vivid green.

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By now there was a sort of stunned silence at the table as everybody dipped into the various bowls of food. Each was better than the last. Kibbeh, little pointed oval meatballs made of ground veal wrapped around ground beef and pine nuts, were delightful. But best of all were dolma-- fat fingers of stuffed grape leaves filled with a tangy mixture of rice and vegetables.

Nobody wanted to eat any more--but everybody wanted to taste the entrees. So we ordered incredibly crisp roast chicken wrapped up in a big soft sheet of lavash bread and served with a powerfully delicious garlic sauce. And then, although everybody swore he couldn’t eat another bite, we finished off with pistachio-sprinkled rice pudding topped with rose water and baklava.

“What a find!” said my friends as we paid the bill (with beer and coffee it came to a grand total of $80 for the six of us). “It was nothing,” I said airily. “After all, restaurants are my beat.”

But although I’d like my friends to believe that I always eat that well, honesty forces me to admit that this was the best meal I’d had all week.

Marouch, 4905 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 662-9325.

Four Oaks’ Therapy

There were going to be three of us for dinner. And although we were all women, we yearned for a quiet romantic setting. “I don’t care what it costs,” said one friend. “I’ve had a terrible day at work and I need to be soothed.”

What made me think of Four Oaks? I knew that chef Claude Segal, whose brilliant cooking was the original attraction, was no longer in the kitchen. But there are times when food is not the main thing on your mind, and this rural restaurant was, simply, one of the most charming places I could think of.

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“I don’t feel like I’m in L.A. anymore,” said the friend who’d needed soothing, snuggling down into her seat and looking out at the branches tapping softly on the window. She shuddered when she caught sight of the prices (main courses are $22 to $27), but then she shrugged. “It’s so peaceful here,” she said.

The service was calm. The room was restful. But the food was the real surprise: It was wonderful. We started with a creamy mussel soup that tasted like the perfect pairing of land and sea. Ravioli were simply light sheets of pasta wrapped around whole shrimp and served in a buttery infusion. A baby lobster salad was embellished with slices of fresh peaches and set atop greens lightly touched with lemon peel. The sophisticated champagne dressing was the perfect foil for the sweetness of the peaches.

Entrees sound complicated, but chef Peter Roelant tends to lend them a certain elegant simplicity. Loin of lamb, roasted pink, came surrounded by turnips with a fat little cake made of mashed potatoes and sweet garlic. Impeccably fresh sea bass sat on a bed of leeks in a gentle sauce of butter and red wine; little crisps of fried parsnips danced around the fish, adding a crisp note of texture.

But if the entrees were robust, dessert provided a counterpoint. They were sweet, fanciful and very ornate. Profiterolles were filled with honey ice cream; as they arrived at the table a pitcher of dense hot chocolate sauce was poured across them. Pineapple came glazed in a warm sabayon ; on the side were an almond tuile and a glass filled with homemade coconut ice cream. Fresh whole peaches had been poached, then topped with ice cream and a dollop of orange mousse. The dish was crowned with a puree of fresh raspberries.

By now my frazzled friend was smiling. “How could anyone feel bad after a meal like this?” she asked. She looked at the bill; without drinks or tip it came to about $40 a person. “I guess it’s not so expensive,” she said, “compared to other kinds of therapy I could think of.”

Four Oaks restaurant, 2181 N. Beverly Glen Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 470-2265.


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