There are restaurants atop skyscrapers that command colossal views. Chez Francois is a restaurant at the bottom of a skyscraper, the C-floor basement of Arco Plaza, and it has only mock windows, recessed portions of wall with coyly swagged drapes but no glass. Just as well; if you could see through these “windows,” the view would be strictly subsoil.
It’s a very pleasant place, though, from the cavelike corridor, to the clubby bar, to the dining room with its pretty floral display. Ryo Sato must like it. He was the chef here years ago, before opening his own Chez Sateau in Arcadia. Now he has bought the place where he used to work, though he apparently recognizes the handicaps of the basement location, since he only opens it for lunch.
Sato has one of the most distinctive cooking styles around, but one of the hardest to characterize. His menus are full of dishes you’ve never had, but somehow the more inventive he gets, the closer the result is to the old French-Continental tradition. It’s solid, skilled cooking, but it combines an apparently random alteration of tradition with a near avoidance of flashy effects, as if it were unmannerly to be memorable.
Typical of both his strong and his weak points is gazpacho de crevettes. Charcoal grilled shrimp rest on a cold tomato puree enriched with cream; it would be wonderful by itself, but little spoonfuls of zucchini puree have been added for one more texture, color and flavor. Unfortunately, it’s a mushy texture, a drab color and a regrettable flavor.
One of the memorable dishes is a roast saddle of lamb with a simple dressing of lamb juices and rosemary. The lamb is covered with watercress and rests on a fried cake of sliced potato--it’s wonderfully smoky. In its way, the breast of duck with orange and cherry sauce (the flavors blend surprisingly well) is memorable too. It comes with a wild rice pilaf mixed with bits of bacon, which is very good, and some delicious brandied cherries (though I am still unable to fathom the thrill of eating hot food with raw alcohol in it).
More typical is Rex sole with butter, lime and caper sauce with tiny, peppercorn-sized croutons of egg bread and a lot of butter. Or large green ravioli with a tiny bit of duck and shiitake mushroom filling, arranged on top of a mound of spinach pasta with some sweet red pepper sauce around it--sweet red pepper sauce being the mildest of ‘80s novelties.
Among the usual pastry selection of black forest cake, Grand Marnier cake (actually, lighter and finer than most) and so forth, there is an unexpected winner at dessert time. It’s a marzipan cake that looks oddly like a slice through a hamburger: the “patty " actually being chocolate; the “catsup” layer, strawberry; and the puffy “bun,” cream. The marzipan layer is what looks like the brownish crust of the bun, and it’s surprisingly moist and luscious.
Now, that’s worth going down in the basement for.
Chez Francois, C-floor, Arco Plaza, 505 S. Flower St., L.A. (213) 680- 2727. Open for lunch Monday through Friday. Full bar. Validated parking at 400 S. Flower lot. All major credit cards accepted. Lunch for two, food only, $43 to $69.