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Patrick Terrail Can’t Go Home Again : It’s a hotel, it’s a restaurant, it’s Ma Maison--and it’s changed

Ma Maison, 8555 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 655-1991. Open for lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $60-$85.

Mr. Movie remembers Ma Maison. That’s the restaurant where he couldn’t get any respect. “They’d look at my Pontiac as if it had a disease,” he says vehemently, “and then they’d give me the worst table in the house.”

In the five years since Ma Maison closed, Mr. Movie has come up in the world. He now expects the best of everything. If Ma Maison were still a little place on Melrose where the fancy cars were parked out front, his Jaguar would probably get a prized position. He himself would indubitably rate a top table. But the new Ma Maison is housed in a hotel, and Mr. Movie isn’t sure that this is where he wants to be.

“Everybody who was anybody ate at the old Ma Maison,” he says. Then he adds disparagingly, “This one is filled with agents from ICM.” He looks around the room seeking out pockets of power. Nothing catches his eye. He leans over conspiratorially. “You know what the really hot restaurant in town is these days?” he asks. “Forget Morton’s. Forget Spago. The place to go is Il Giardino. It’s where you go when you don’t want to be seen. But of course everybody’s there, so everybody sees you. That’s the point.”

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Mr. Movie would like everybody to see him at Ma Maison. But everybody seems to have moved on. His eyes sweep the room, taking in what is one of the loveliest new places in Los Angeles. “It’s like a fantastically comfortable greenhouse,” says Mr. Movie, looking out the windows to the vines that are growing quickly in a valiant effort to block out Beverly Boulevard. He looks up at the skylight, which actually opens. “It’s a lot classier than the old place,” he muses, noting that the rug, although still green, is not Astroturf. Flowered prints and pink cloths are draped across the tables; plants and flowers are everywhere you look. Waiters glide smoothly past, bearing trays topped with silver domes. People look happy.

“There’s only one thing wrong,” says Mr. Movie. “All the people who aren’t agents look like they’re from out of town.”

Just then he brightens up. He tugs on his little ponytail, straightens his shoulders. What has he seen? I turn. Rod Stewart is walking toward us with a date.

“Maybe Ma Maison can be forever young,” says Mr. Movie, taking his eyes off the room and grabbing a handful of the thin little smoked salmon sandwiches that the waiter has deposited on the table as an amuse-gueule. “These are terrific.” he says. The presence of a celebrity probably improves the flavor, but these little tidbits don’t need any help. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Patrick Terrail had actually managed to bring back Ma Maison?” says Mr. Movie wistfully. He wants it to be just like the old place--only this time he will be the one Patrick Terrail escorts past envious eyes to the best table in the house.

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“He can make you feel so important,” says Mr. Movie as Patrick Terrail comes over and proceeds to do just that. Terrail chats us up, gossips a little, sends over a whole plate of smoked salmon. “We make it every day,” he says proudly, and indeed this is fine silky stuff. Mr. Movie sips his wine and starts to relax. Patrick Terrail adjusts the flower in his buttonhole and moves on to the next table, turning to say in his gravelly voice, “Have the escargots in baked potato. It’s my favorite dish.”

Mr. Movie has the snails. He likes them. And no wonder. Unlike your ordinary escargots, these come snuggled into a crisp, briefly fried baked potato so that there is something to soak up the sauce. Mr. Movie eats every last drop, then devours most of the plateau of fresh oysters his date has ordered. He tastes a salad, says it’s good, overlooking the fact that it has far too much dressing--and far too much salt. Now he turns his attention to my flourless ravioli. “What is that stuff?” he asks, “It looks just like regular ravioli.”

I taste it. “They’ve used thin slices of turnip instead of pasta,” I say. It’s a clever idea. Unfortunately, the filling between the slices of turnip is goat cheese embellished with too many herbs, so that the overwhelming impression is far from subtle. Subtlety, however, is lost on Mr. Movie; he is looking very hopeful.

At least until the entrees arrive. And then, try as he might, Mr. Movie is not impressed. “This duck is gray and dried out,” he says, looking down at his own plate where slices of duck are surrounded by sauteed apples and leaden little corn pancakes, all drowned in a heavy brown Calvados sauce. “I thought it’d be rare and pink.”

I point out that his date’s liver in raspberry vinaigrette sauce is very nice, but Mr. Movie has no intention of eating liver. I’m also pleased with a thin steak served with a huge pile of French fries in the best French bistro tradition. I think it’s the best thing on the menu; Mr. Movie thinks it’s a bore. “I didn’t come to a fancy restaurant to eat steak and fries,” he says.

The kitchen prides itself on fish, offering a large and varied selection every day. Today we try a nice piece of Norwegian salmon perched on a bed of spinach and bathed in a peppery grapefruit sauce. It would be a fine dish if only the fish were considerably less cooked. In fact, the fish have been overcooked every time I’ve tried them. Some of the preparations--salmon in sorrel sauce, yellowtail in a tropical salsa, sole meuniere-- would have been wonderful had the fish spent less time in the pan. But even when I specifically asked for undercooked fish, it came out dry and well done.

Mr. Movie isn’t all that interested in fish. But he does have a problem with the plates. “There’s too much on them,” he says. Indeed, while the kitchen is to be commended for its imaginative use of vegetables--each entree is garnished in a different manner--the plates have a saucey, messy, overfilled look. “It looks like hotel food,” says Mr. Movie. He has a point.

But dessert is arriving, and Mr. Movie is amused. His profiteroles arrive in a frosted pink swan that looks like it belongs at an 8-year-old’s birthday party. “I’m not sure a sophisticated restaurant ought to be using these dishes,” he says, “but the ladies who lunch must love them.” He himself is in love with the chocolate sorbet. It is fantastic stuff--like the most sophisticated Fudgesicle you can possibly imagine. “They ought to put it on sticks and sell it to go,” says Mr. Movie, “I’d fill up my freezer.”

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Now Patrick Terrail is back, offering Grappa, Framboise, Poire William. Mr. Movie sips on his icy, alcoholic drink and leans back in his seat. He casts a last hopeful glance around the room. Rod Stewart is still here. But he is the sole celebrity. “This place is pretty, but it just isn’t the old Ma Maison,” says Mr. Movie. “I guess that’s gone forever.” He brightens and adds, “But Patrick Terrail doesn’t change, and he’s back doing what he does best.”

And that, of course, makes Mr. Movie feel like a million bucks.

Recommended dishes: smoked salmon, $9.95; snails in baked potato, $9.95; steak and French fries, $21.95; Norwegian salmon, $21.95; chocolate sorbet, $6.95.


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