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Sniffing Out Truffles : It’s not easy to find chef Elmer Azuma’s latest restaurant--it’s hidden on the third floor of an office building

Poor Arnold Friedman.

That’s what I thought when I got his letter. He was writing to inform me that his new restaurant had just opened. He went on to say that since eating at Chabuya, a tiny restaurant seating just 15 people near downtown Los Angeles two years ago, he’d fallen in love with the food of Chef Elmer Azuma. So impressed was he, in fact, that he decided chef Elmer Azuma deserved a larger restaurant. He determined to give him just that in Truffles; “a showcase for his creative culinary efforts,” is how he actually put it.

This seemed sweet--but misguided. Businessmen with no experience in restaurants traditionally lose their shirts when they decide to open eating establishments. But this particular venture seemed even more doomed than usual--the site Friedman had chosen was on the third floor of a building on West Olympic Boulevard.

A restaurant on the third floor is always a bad idea. A restaurant on the third floor of an office building in a part of town with no foot traffic is even worse. Forget about drop-in trade. Forget about spontaneity. Forget, in fact, is an appropriate word; for a restaurant on the third floor is very likely to be forgotten.

Then there’s the matter of what they were calling the food. Chef Azuma, it seems, was preparing something called “ cuisine spontanee. " Now the idea of unpremeditated cooking may make sense in a restaurant with 15 seats (although I don’t remember anything particularly spontaneous about the cooking at Chabuya), but trying to invent dishes on the spot in a real restaurant is not a good idea. It seemed silly.

From the pictures enclosed with the letter, it looked pretty silly too, like the worst sort of hotel dining room. I expected the project to meet with a very fast death.

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Then when Truffles was about a month old, our office got a call from Mr. Friedman. “Has she been in?” he wanted to know. “He sounded so sad,” said the person who took the call. “OK, OK,” I said, “I’ll go for lunch.”

The room itself was the first surprise. What had looked fussy and overdecorated in the snapshots turned out to be a light, calm, soothing room. It did look a little bit like a hotel restaurant--but a particularly small and attractive one.

The service was the second surprise; it was swift and professional.

But it was the food that won my heart. Forget about spontaneity or lack of it: This was simply a delicious, and very personal, rendition of contemporary French cooking.

I started with a salad of flash-smoked black cod on a bed of tiny spinach leaves; it was one of the best salads I’ve ever eaten. Black cod is an oily, flavorful fish that is made even more delicious by smoking. Here the fattiness of the fish was perfectly set off by the clean squeakiness of the spinach leaves. A poached egg topped the dish, marrying the two main ingredients, and little bits of potato danced around adding a perfect textural note.

Next I had lobster ravioli surrounded by baby vegetables in a rich, buttery sauce. It was a playful dish, a contrast of flavor and texture. I finished the meal with a scoop of chocolate mousse set off by three sauces.

By the time I went back for dinner I had told everybody I know about the great lunch I’d eaten at Truffles. My guests arrived with great expectations. The fact that it took five minutes before anybody even acknowledged our presence, much less took us to a table, dashed them a bit. The tiny, unimpressive wine list didn’t help. And after we had waited 15 minutes for our order to be taken, and another 15 minutes for the first food to arrive, the table was getting ominously restless.

We all pounced on the appetizers. There was a moment of silence as we wrapped sauteed shrimp in Vietnamese rice paper, added lots of Asian herbs and dipped the little packages into fish sauce. And then there were smiles; they were wonderful. So was the warm, rare, Norwegian salmon topped with a scattering of salmon caviar. And a special salad made of rock shrimp, potatoes, greens and a king’s ransom of shaved truffles was truly spectacular.

Main courses were impressive too. Roast filet mignon of veal--a huge, pink, peppery serving-- came topped with truffles cooked in the meat juices. Lobster came roasted in a Thai-flavored curry, with a scattering of sliced artichokes; the lobster and the artichokes were an inspired combination. But my favorite dish was the special fish of the day. Steamed rock cod came in a mustard sauce laced with whole sea urchins; the sauce imparted a flash of flavor to this rather bland fish.

We waited again for dessert. It was all so slow that I kept imagining poor chef Azuma back in the kitchen all alone, trying to spontaneously prepare everything by himself. In the end, I’m not convinced that the mille - feuille with berries and lemon creme Chantilly was worth waiting for, but the apple strudel, which came with a raisin mousse, was. It moved one guest to say, “I like it so much that I’m having to rethink my attitude towards raisins.”

We waited again for the check. And it was not small. Without wine, tax or tip, the meal had cost about $40 apiece. Had the service been better, the price would have seemed fair. As it was, I decided to go back and find out if the “discovery menu"--three courses at $31--would seem like a better bargain.

It did. You have to forgo some of the better dishes (the lobster, the fish of the day), but you can choose the Vietnamese shrimp, the black cod, lobster ravioli, salmon with caviar, good crisp sauteed sweetbreads and a dish of shrimp and scallops grilled and served in a pesto sauce on a bed of pureed fennel. At $31 for three of these dishes, you can forgive the slowness of the service.

At the moment, chef Azuma doesn’t quite have the showcase that his culinary talent deserves. The service, which is pleasant, needs to be speeded up. The wine list needs to be expanded. But considering that the restaurant is only a couple of months old, Truffles is doing just fine.

So don’t pity Arnold Friedman. Right now he is beating the odds.

Truffles

11355 W. Olympic Blvd., W.L.A. (213) 477-0999.

Open for lunch Monday-Friday, for dinner Monday-Saturday. Valet parking. Full bar. All major credit cards. Dinner for 2, food only, $58-$96.

Recommended dishes: Vietnamese shrimp, $9; lobster ravioli, $10; warm salmon with caviar, $12; roasted lobster, $22; apple strudel, $6.


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