Patina: Great Expectations : One of L.A.'s favorite chefs is back in the kitchen.

Patina, 5955 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles. (213) 467-1108. Open for lunch Monday-Friday; for dinner nightly. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for 2, food only, $60-$100. I like Patina very much. But I don't like it as much as I thought I was going to. And that leads me to the following question: Is it fair to judge a restaurant on your expectations? Is it fair to compare it to what the chef did before? Is it fair to look at what is unquestionably one of the best restaurants to open in Los Angeles in the last few years and complain that it's not as good as you hoped it would be?

I'm not sure.

Patina is the restaurant that people who care about food in Los Angeles have been waiting for Joachim Splichal to open. Splichal came to Los Angeles in 1982 and wowed local diners at the Regency Club and the Seventh Street Bistro. By the time he went to Max au Triangle in 1984, there was what amounted to a Joachim Splichal fan club. And they were not disappointed: the food at Max was imaginative, exciting, completely delicious. When the restaurant failed, for reasons that had nothing to do with the food, Splichal left town. It looked as if he might never come back. His fans were crushed.

We heard about him--he was in New York consulting to this restaurant, in Singapore consulting to that one. Occasionally we'd hear that what he really wanted was to come back to Los Angeles and open an intimate place where he could cook whatever he wanted. There were lots of rumors--and then we heard that he had taken over the site of the former Le St. Germain.

It seemed perfect. Indeed, it looks perfect. What was once a small dark restaurant has become a small light restaurant filled with gorgeous objects. The decor may flirt with coldness, but it manages to avoid it. The chairs are beautiful and comfortable. The plates were made especially for the restaurant. The sconces on the walls, the flowers on the table--even the waiters' clothes--show how much attention has gone into details.

Then you open the menu, and the first thing that you notice is that it's not very large. Remembering Max, this comes as something of a shock--the menu there was huge and exuberant, as if Splichal had so many things he wanted to make he could hardly contain himself. Here you sense a certain restraint, as if after all this time Splichal has finally gotten what he wanted and is now afraid that he will blow it. Splichal isn't taking many chances.

This may be reasonable. Still, it's a little disappointing to discover that one of the best of the eight entrees (and one of only three that is not fish) is almost identical to one that was served at Max. The gratin of lamb with mashed potatoes and garlic is delicious, but surely in the last five years Splichal has created some new dishes to show us? In fact, my favorite entree is the one that seems most unlike Splichal's old style. Tuna is heavily peppered (very heavily peppered), cooked extremely rare and served in an Oriental tangle of pea pod vines and grilled scallions. The next best entree, free range chicken, with cunningly wrapped vegetables, is also new. As for the other entrees--the salmon is nice, the squab filet fine as long as you like your birds really bloody, the John Dory delicious--if these had been cooked by most other chefs I'd be able to muster more enthusiasm.

The sort of enthusiasm, in fact, that I feel for the warm appetizers. For here you see the sort of elan that makes Splichal such an exciting chef. "Ravioli" are made of thinly sliced potatoes stuffed with tiny oysters and topped with frizzy fried shallots. Santa Barbara shrimp crown a mound of mashed potatoes and come topped with fried potatoes whose hearts are made of truffles. Duck liver is served with a puddle of beets in what turns out to be an absolutely perfect flavor combination. A special appetizer called potato and mushroom lasagna is an elegantly earthy dish that layers potatoes with oyster mushrooms, shiitake and summer truffles and sends them straight to food heaven.

Some of the cold appetizers are equally intense. Marinated salmon is sandwiched between corn blinis; the colors are so similar that when you take a bite it's hard to tell where the corn stops and the salmon starts. There's another nice pairing of soft white sea scallops with crisp white bits of peppered filo.

Did I try the soup? No, I did not. I was afraid I'd get the giggles ordering something called "metamorphosis of a potato, garlic and thyme terrine into a soup."

I wish I had stayed away from the $42 prix fixe vegetarian menu as well, because then I wouldn't have to tell you how much I didn't like it. It is a meal missing its main course. Splichal's a wonderful chef and Patina is a place that every serious eater ought to try, but unless you have a very small appetite the "Garden Menu" will make you mad.

It began with a "semi-carpaccio of summer vegetables"--nothing more than a prettily arranged group of vegetables on a plate. The dish that followed was even prettier. Rounds of red and yellow tomatoes encircled a piece of pastry. But the olives and bits of sun-dried tomatoes that embellished the tart were the only things that I could taste, for the tomatoes were absolutely devoid of flavor. What were tomatoes like these doing in this kitchen?

The meal continued with baby turnips stuffed with mushrooms. They were very tasty, very tiny, and not my idea of dinner. I devoured the dessert--a light raspberry gratin with citrus sauce and looked around to see what else there was to eat.

There were, in fact, a lot of desserts going begging. Many of the desserts here just haven't impressed me very much. There's a doughnut served with vanilla ice cream and caramel chocolate sauce that you keep expecting to get up and dance--but it's just a doughnut with ice cream. The cheesecake ice cream makes you think how really delicious real cheesecake is, and wonder why anybody tried to take a good thing and improve upon it. The berry pie--a little latticework tart--is served with a "vanilla milkshake sauce" that just makes the tart soggy. I did like a very good, rather plain strawberry rhubarb tart served with vanilla ice cream. I thought that the creme brulee with little bits of corn in it was absolutely brilliant. And the peach galette is so good you want to order it again and again.

Was I more impressed with lunch because my expectations were lower? Because the prices were lower? I don't think so. I think there's a looseness about lunch--a certain lack of seriousness--that leaves Splichal more relaxed. For if I have walked away from Patina at night with a vague sense of disappointment, I have found lunch entirely satisfying.

Favorite appetizer? It's hard to choose. I loved the red bell pepper soup served with a baby B.L.T. It sounds cute, but this is more than just a novelty: The little mini-sandwich adds all the richness and salt that the soup itself lacks. Eating the two together is like munching your way through a text on flavor.

The ravioli--triangles stuffed with crabmeat and topped with a dice of tomatoes and a frizz of fried leeks--are delightful. Sauteed duck liver on blueberry pancakes with blueberry sauce are a dream.

And for main courses--the tuna salad nicoise is a perfect midday meal--a big heap of lettuce topped with thin rare tuna and surrounded by various delectable little tidbits. There are haricots with big pieces of sliced elephant garlic. Potatoes in a vinaigrette. A tiny salad of fava beans. Toast with tapenade. A salad of red and yellow cherry tomatoes. And a single anchovy.

And despite the rather pretentious description of the cioppino as "a tradition turned into a novelty," I liked the dish very well. (Although I would have liked it better if it had not included those enormous green-lipped mussels.) The novelty? The dish arrives in a pale stock that turns out to have a bed of tomatoes concasse hiding underneath. As you dip your spoon into the dish it gradually turns red.

Food like this goes beyond tasting good--it's fun to eat. At his best Joachim Splichal makes eating a truly joyful experience. Even at his worst he makes food that is better than what you get in most other restaurants in town. But it must be noted that right now Splichal seems to be suffering from a certain stiffness, holding back, playing it safe. I can't wait until he loosens up, lets himself go and really starts to cook.

Is this fair criticism? As I said at the start, I'm not sure. But Splichal himself must have intended to work slowly towards his best. Why else name the place Patina? A good patina, after all, comes only with age.

Recommended dishes: potato ravioli with oysters, $9; shrimp with mashed potatoes, $14; duck liver with beets, $15; peppered tuna, $19.50; gratin of lamb, $22.50.

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