Old-Time Elegance Prevails at Windsor

Times Staff Writer

Ah, the Windsor. Remember the Windsor? I had almost forgotten the Windsor

The 45-year-old landmark restaurant was, and still is, a hangout for downtown business moguls. Its days as a romantic hideaway for Hollywood stars are over, but I can see a yuppie revival.

I've yet to find a more romantic, cozy place that would qualify. The ambiance is tawny and sultry with its soft lighting, walnut and mahogany panels and soft-leather semi-circular booths, a throwback to the '40s when they were designed for intimate tete a tete.

As for the fast-disappearing art of tableside service, you'll not find it better or more perfected anywhere.

And I left all that for the ice-cold, high-tech and newfangled nouvelle that wooed me away from the Windsor over the last decade? Well, I'm back.

I decided to visit the Windsor again because I have rediscovered Continental cuisine, which I think of as truly American. Continental cuisine, which graced the finest tables in fashionable American restaurants and home dining rooms, was the cooking of France, Germany, Italy and Britain translated for the American palate. Meat and potatoes done with flair. And it stuck. Continental cuisine is, in my humble opinion, the best-liked, most appreciated and most comforting cuisine for the American palate.

So there I was at the Windsor, going back in time. There were the circular booths, the tawny cast, the cozy, comfortable place I left back in the '70s, when we often celebrated family birthdays at the restaurant.

And there was Ben Dimsdale, the owner and visionary, whose name deserves to be engraved in the culinary hall of fame for having brought everlasting style to the Los Angeles restaurant scene throughout the years. The energy oozing from Dimsdale is hard to miss. It's in the air, on the menu and in the rapid-fire movements of his staff. No sloughing off here.

There was Antoine, the captain extraordinaire who can tell you when Belgian endive is in season, how sauces Bearnaise and morel (mushrooms) are made, and whether you should order the chicken Kiev or veal Oscar, the stroganoff, the steak Diane, the grenadine of beef tenderloin, the beef Wellington, the chateaubriand bouquetiere or the veal cordon bleu, because, you'll want them all. But he'll tell you. And you can bet you'll be happy.

Any waiter or captain who wonders what intuitive, wise, professional service is all about should make a point of observing Antoine, who too should be ensconced in the culinary hall of fame as a model for generations to come.

When Dimsdale stopped at our table (as he does with all customers) to ask how things were, he mentioned that the menu may be too large. It is, but why change it now? The menu is a period piece worth studying just for the sheer joy of it. Reading it makes my heart jump.

At dinner, you can run down the 25 appetizers, which include old favorites such as marrow Bordelaise, whose sauce is a work of art. Rarely, if ever, have I had better, even in France. Hearts of palm vinaigrette, oysters Rockefeller, seafood cocktails are on the same list. The onion soup au gratin is the kind that you'd expect grand'mere used to make, filled and brimming with fragrant melted cheese. Potage St. Germaine (cream of pea soup) and the cold vichyssoise, standard on all Continental menus, are also on the soup list.

As for the salads, good heavens, what a list. There is a Caesar salad that is prepared at tableside as it should be--with a flourish. There is an excellent wilted spinach (the best I've had so far) with gorgeous, fat spinach leaves and a superb dressing. The Belgian endive vinaigrette is an excellent choice at the moment, because, says Antoine, endive are in season. "It is best to order vegetables in season," he said. That's a lot better advice than you hear from "hi, I'm Chuck, your friendly waiter," who doesn't know a Belgian endive from a putty knife.

There is an old-fashioned Louis salad on the lunch menu, and another Windsor variation. The lunch menu has a group of fabulous sandwiches too.

Fish Fresh Daily

Like all well-rounded Continental menus, you have a pasta section to study. These are standard classics: spaghetti Caruso, Bolognese, marinara, linguine all vongole and fettuccine Alfredo. But I'll bet you haven't seen a spaghetti Tetrazzini on a menu lately. The Tetrazzini is a layered dish of spaghetti, turkey breast and mushroom-sherry sauce.

All the fish, says Antoine, is purchased fresh daily. And I believe him. The broiled swordfish maitre d'hotel sang, which, for someone who spurns fish, is saying much. And I can't wait to try the lobster thermidor, which is, and has been, a Windsor specialty.

Among the fowl you have chicken a la Kiev with sauce perigueux (truffle) , prepared at its classic best. The dish could not have been as good during the time of the Czars in Russia, when the dish (they say) was used as a means of transmitting secret information within the plump rolls of chicken. The butter oozes out at first bite.

There is a duckling with wild rice and a deviled turkey breast with brandied peaches. There is also a turkey Marco Polo (made with broccoli and ham in a cream sauce), which circulated heavily, I recall, during the '40s and '50s.

Remember veal Cordon Bleu? Remember veal Oskar, made with asparagus and tomatoes? There is a veal chop with spinach en croute (in a crust) and a Milanaise, which is precisely classic. A veal piccata saute with lemon and capers is worth its relatively low price ($20).

Prices Memorably Lower

In fact, the prices are memorably lower than you would pay at an equally fine restaurant. No entree, whether fish, fowl or veal is priced more than $25 or $48 for two. Most are in the $16 to $18 range.

If you love red meat, you've come to the right place. You'll find your favorites, including pepper steak, tournedos, rack of lamb, mixed grill, Vienna roastbraten, plus the organ meats, which most people reserve for restaurant dining: lamb kidney saute, calf's liver saute with apples, onions and bacon, and sweetbreads. A New York steak sandwich fills you up, and pork chops are priced right too.

I heartily suggest you save room for dessert. The desserts are the old classics that are fast disappearing from the restaurant scene. Crepes Suzettes and cherries jubilee are prepared tableside. My favorite, peach Melba, named after the Australian Nellie Melba, whose operatic career flourished during the turn of the century, is a sky-high creation in a huge iced bowl with fabulous chocolate sauce streaming down fat peach halves.

The chocolate souffle was slightly disappointing, only because I expected it to be better than the ones I so enjoy at the Moustache Cafe and the Bistro. The baked Alaska was gorgeous to look at, but slightly dry. Order either dessert when you order your entree.

And, ah yes, the coffee. It's superb. The cafe diable for two is especially romantic.

The Windsor, 3198 West 7th St. (Mid-Wilshire); (213) 382-1261. Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; open for dinner Monday through Saturday from 4:30 p.m. to midnight. Major credit cards accepted. Reservations preferred. Bar service. Banquet facilities available. Valet parking available. Entrees from $14.50 to $25.

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