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A Patina of Success : A year later, Joachim Splichal’s Melrose Avenue restaurant has finally found its footing . . . Paris, look out.

You are living in the best restaurant town in America. Money magazine says so. After an exhaustive survey of eating in American cities, the editors have crowned our town. ". . . Every night of the week restaurants are serving dinners equal to those of the best of Paris. . .,” they gush in their most recent issue.

This is, for the most part, ridiculous. The food in the best restaurants of Los Angeles is not as good as the food in the best restaurants of Paris. Not by a long shot.

And yet . . . last week I had an almost perfect dinner here in Los Angeles. It was a meal I would have been happy to have eaten anywhere in the world. It was a meal that made me proud to live in Los Angeles. And it was a meal in a restaurant that didn’t impress me all that much when it opened a year ago.

How do you start a perfect evening? By gathering a group of people you like--there were seven of us--and by not having to wait one minute for your table. (Although I have had reservations about the fare at Patina, I have never had fears about the reservations. This is one restaurant where they are honored. The service here is, in fact, quite splendid; Patina is undoubtedly the best-run young restaurant in town.)

This particular group of people sat down, noted that the room was soft and attractive, the table comfortable, and immediately launched into a conversation so intense that nobody noticed when water, wine and bread were placed upon the table. At the very first pause we discovered that menus had somehow appeared in our hands. And no sooner had we finished discussing what we were to eat than a waiter was standing at the table, anticipating our orders.

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It was quite a discussion; it is quite a menu. The appetizers are the most enticing of any restaurant in Los Angeles. “I’ll have the duck liver with rhubarb,” said one friend decisively. “No,” she contradicted herself almost immediately, “I’ll have the risotto of barley with braised oxtail.” She went through the sandwich of corn blinis with marinated salmon, the creme brulee of oysters with potato and chives and the Santa Barbara shrimp with mashed potatoes before settling, finally, on her original choice.

The liver was spectacular--a few intensely flavorful mouthfuls in which the richness of the liver did somersaults around sweet-sour bits of rhubarb. But wonderful as it was, it was no more impressive than the other appetizers considered.

This is a joyfully inventive menu in which ingredients are constantly masquerading as one another. Barley plays at being rice in the appealing risotto; potatoes pretend to be almost everything except themselves. In the creme brulee, mashed ones (with a lot of butter) stand in for custard, while a single layer of crisply fried potatoes sits regally on top, pretending to be caramelized sugar. In the lasagna with wild mushrooms and Italian parsley sauce, potatoes layer themselves with mushrooms, as if they were long strips of pasta; in the scallop roll, one single slice of thin potato wraps itself around a fat pair of scallops so that it is the visual double of a well-stuffed egg roll. These dishes all sound good; they taste better.

The conversation at the table came to a halt as we passed our plates around. “Have you tried these crab gnocchi ?” asked someone at the far end, handing over a bowl filled with rich little morsels in an even richer sauce of mushrooms and chives. “Wait until you taste these warm asparagus ravioli . . .,” said another, watching a plate of soft pillows plunked atop a bed of bright green asparagus and chopped tomatoes make its way down the table.

Food this good is a thrill to eat; it reminds you how glad you are to be alive. And it makes you eager for the next taste.

This can be a problem, for many restaurants suffer from appetizer overkill--first courses so spectacular that what comes next is invariably a disappointment. Patina used to have this problem; it doesn’t anymore. Of all the main courses, there was only one we didn’t love.

The peppered tuna with Chinese vegetables is a little architectural wonder that arrives hidden beneath a heap of crisply frizzled Chinese pasta; it is the most appealing piece of tuna you will ever eat. John Dory, on its bed of lentils, is equally exciting. The gratin of lamb is a meat-eater’s dream of mashed potatoes, meat and garlic; the tournedos of beef with fried potato ravioli and soft cloves of sweet garlic is somehow more refined, more delicate--but no less interesting to eat.

There is free-range chicken, its skin crisp, in a stew of artichokes, leeks and celery. It is clean tasting, fresh, quite a contrast to the other bird--gamy squab that arrives in a rich, buttery, bacon-scented sauce atop bit of spiced bread and baby peas. The minestrone of lobster is equally rich--too rich perhaps?--in a sauce that also has hints of bacon, along with peas and tomatoes. The textures are important in this dish: The soft, velvety flesh of the lobster is set off against white beans, peas and fava beans so that your teeth are constantly discovering something new to bite into.

The only dish that was a disappointment was the veal medallions. The meat itself was wonderful, but the corn flan that came with it was one kind of mush, while the crab fritters were another; the dish just didn’t seem to come together.

I didn’t think that any of the desserts missed. Even an odd concoction called timbale of pineapple--fresh pineapple piled into a crisp cookie, topped with pistachio ice cream and surrounded by a pool of basil sauce--was a delight. The chocolate plate is a dark, dense dream. The ice creams are quite incredible (especially the chocolate), and the corn creme brulee continues to be a wonderful way to end a meal.

Patina opened to great expectations. When Chef Joachim Splichal opened Max au Triangle in 1984, he had given Los Angeles its most exciting restaurant. We all wanted this one to be as good. And it was a let-down.

A year later, things have changed. The restaurant has found its footing. Today Patina is turning out the sort of food that you’d expect from one of the best young chefs in the country (and to Splichal’s credit, his kitchen seems to function as well in his absence as it does when he is there). Even better, Patina is offering this amazing food at prices that are well below what they were at Max. There’s probably not another big city in the country where you could eat food this impressive for $35 a person.

No wonder those East Coast folks keep saying all these nice things about Los Angeles.

Patina

5955 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 467-1108.

Open for lunch Monday-Friday; for dinner nightly. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $66-$90.

Recommended dishes: risotto of barley, $9.50; potato lasagna, $10; duck liver with rhubarb, $15; corn blinis with salmon, $9.50; peppered tuna, $21.75; gratin of lamb, $22.50; chicken with artichoke stew, $19.75; corn creme brulee , $6.50; assorted ice cream, $6.

In Thursday’s Food Section, a review of Patina-to-Go.


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