I try to approach restaurants with an open mind, yet there are times when, I admit, certain expectations take hold. For example, when a meal for two, no booze, costs $100, I expect something good to eat, at the very least.
However, when I look back on all the meals for which I paid $50 without regrets , I've had much more than good food--more than even splendid service and comfortable surroundings.
The best high-priced meals always lead me to experience a moment of transformation in which the meal takes hold, when it becomes more than meat and vegetables on a plate, where every component suddenly comes together to create an experience, a wonderful experience impossible to replicate.
The most recent meal I've had in that price range was at Lautrec, a lovely, genteel establishment just west of Topanga Canyon Boulevard on Ventura Boulevard. It has pretty-in-pink linens, with wood-sashed French windows and a beguiling patio.
On a chilly weekday night, we're graciously greeted by the hostess and, thanks to my companion's avocation, led away from those lovely windows into the smokers' dining room, where we are supposed to be mollified by a nice fire in the fireplace.
There are soft-gray wood beams, some brass, glass and plants, and rather dramatic wall lamps and chandeliers. It's tasteful, if a little generic and impersonal, much like a furniture store showroom.
Lautrec, which has been open for six years, offers "gourmet California dining," and I have to admit, I'm looking forward to dinner. I'm a fan of California cuisine. I like the emphasis on fresh, top-quality ingredients and the experimentation that leads to new, serendipitous combinations of flavors.
Since California cuisine (which I assume is at least similar to gourmet California dining) is wide open to definition, each restaurant essentially can create its own repertoire of dishes.
At Lautrec, for example, the universally favored appetizer, smoked Scottish salmon ($11.50), is not just served plain, or with the standard capers and chopped onions, but comes wrapped around bunches of enoki mushrooms, daikon sprouts and little shreds of fried won ton skins.
The salmon is of fairly good quality, but the rest of the dish is extraneous and, frankly, silly. The champignons en papillotte ($9.95), wild mushrooms in a garlic white wine butter allegedly served in paper, arrives not in the anticipated parchment envelope, but in good old tin foil--a particularly charmless presentation that is not transcended by the flavors within.
At this point in our dinners, with a couple of bucks invested in some Perriers and $21.45 in appetizers, I have a vague, utterly spontaneous fear that I'm engaging in "the emperor's new diet."
"Hey," I silently remind myself, "we're in a pretty restaurant, and the service is terrific--there's a hostess, a barman, waiters, busboys, runners, a veritable army at our command--these are also things we're paying for here."
My friend and I split a bowl of the soupe du jour, and it turns out to be a fragrant, delicious saffron and mussel soup with a puff pastry cap ($3.50). "There now," I tell myself. "Now we're cooking with finesse."
Still, my doubts redouble as I cut into my lamb chops. I had ordered the chops medium rare, because the waiter told me the chef cooked meat on the rare side, but these chops are a standard medium. They are also just plain standard: strong rather than delicate in flavor, and more than a bit tough. They are not what the price ($24) promised, nor, for that matter, do they uphold the stated intention of the restaurant to offer "gourmet California dining."
My friend has a vegetable plate ($15), a selection of parboiled asparagus, haricot verts, hearts of palm, broccoli, baby squash and turnips with a respectable bearnaise served on the side. I've seen perkier vegetables in my life, but my friend claims that this assortment tastes better and fresher than it looks--the presentation is messy, as if no one in the kitchen wanted to take the minute or less it would have taken to arrange the food.
A creme caramel is very good, but the apple tarte tatin is way too sweet, and its puff pastry is weird--too tough and too soggy. We ask for decaffeinated cappuccino, but are informed that the cappuccino is "pre-made" with "caffeinated" espresso and merely steamed and dusted with nutmeg to order. We settle for decaffeinated cafe au lait , and contemplate the $100-plus bill. The meal met our barest expectations, but it was not the transforming experience I'd been hoping for.
I return to Lautrec for lunch with a girlfriend and, because both the prices and our expectations are lower, we have a pleasant meal. There's a tasty duck liver terrine, served with toast points and cornichons (tiny sweet gherkins), and a sinfully rich chicken of the day, stuffed with spinach and sauced with plenty of Brie cheese and green peppercorns. And when the bill arrives, we look at it and smile. Today there are no regrets.
Lautrec, 22160 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 704-1185. Open seven days. Lunch, Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday brunch 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Dinner nightly 5 to 10 p.m. Full Bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards. Patio dining. Banquet facilities.
Recommended dishes: terrine du chef, $6.95; chicken of the day (at lunch), $11.95; warm salmon salad, $9.95; mussel soup, $3.50; creme caramel, $3.50.