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RESTAURANTS : Bice Makes Nice : The restaurant that everybody loved to hate has changed--there’s a distinctive new chef and a new attitude

<i> Ruth Reichl is The Times' restaurant critic</i>

Can this be Bice?

Here is the maitre d’, gently wondering if you’d like to go to your table right away or wait at the bar? Here is the bartender, asking every five minutes if there is anything he can do to make you more comfortable. Here is the waiter, concern on his face, clearly anxious to make you as happy as possible. And here is the sommelier, rushing off to get your bottle of wine and actually returning with the right bottle on the very first try.

The restaurant that everybody loved to hate has changed.

A year ago Bice swept into town, took over a splashy Beverly Hills space and settled in to show naive little L.A. what Italian food was all about. The attitude in the room was so thick you could have cut the arrogance like butter; the service was snooty, the waiters were rude, the wine service was ridiculous, and the prices were high. If this really had been L.A.'s first taste of pasta, as the owners seemed to believe, we all would have gladly turned our backs on Italian food forever.

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Some of us merely turned our backs on Bice. Once my review was written I was relieved not to have to go back. Others obviously had similar sentiments; I have rarely driven by and seen all the tables taken. Clearly the management came to understand that it was going to take more than a plate of pretty good pasta to make Bice boom.

But what could they do? Announce that they had all turned into warm and welcoming people who would make us feel good when we went to eat at Bice? Who would believe them? So they did the next best thing--they brought in a new chef.

But not just any chef--a high-profile chef. Patrick Clark had a big hit on his hands at New York’s Odeon, a TriBeCa restaurant so hip that one of the scenes in “Bright Lights, Big City” takes place there. Then Clark moved uptown and upscale to open his own restaurant, Metro, a relentlessly chic little place all panelled in wood. Although the restaurant got very good reviews (I liked it when I ate there, too), it closed in less than two years. Now Clark has turned up at Bice, and although I’ve been a fan since I first ate his food 10 years ago, he is hardly an expert in Italian cooking. He seemed like a strange choice of savior.

“What’s he doing cooking pasta?” I muttered to myself as I drove to Bice. Clark or no Clark, I hated going back. I consoled myself with the knowledge that it was white truffle season. I knew that my reward for putting up with the place would be the the best white truffle risotto in town. I did get the risotto, it was as good as it had been when the restaurant first opened--but it was no consolation prize. Bice was different; suddenly even the staff was pleasant.

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On my first visit the waiter became very annoyed with me when the restaurant didn’t have the first eight wines I ordered; on this visit, he commented knowingly on my choice. We sipped it, read the menus and discovered that the irritating little notation about pasta costing an extra $5 when served as a main course had disappeared. But not much else about the menu seemed to have been altered; if Patrick Clark was doing this cooking, he had changed more than coasts.

So we ordered the dishes we remembered most fondly--the risotto and a dish they call “Robespierre,” slices of rare steak topped with arugula. We enjoyed the grandeur of the room, the pleasantness of the service, and although this was not the world’s greatest food, it was good enough to make me think that I would gladly come back. Still, as the maitre d’ smiled us out the door, I did sort of wonder where Patrick Clark was hiding his good food.

I didn’t return for about a month--and by then things seemed to have changed--a little. That appetizer of smoked and cured swordfish was surely not on the menu before. Paper thin slices of rosy swordfish were arranged around a delicate little salad of baby greens. A plate of toasts was served on the side. I’ve never had swordfish served in quite this way, but it’s a perfect fish to take this kind of treatment. The result was an innocent twist on prosciutto--and not at all out of place in an Italian restaurant.

But there didn’t seem to be anything else very Clark-like on the menu; we had shell pasta with eggplant, roasted peppers, tomatoes and onions--a perfectly respectable if unexciting dish. Veal scaloppine was served with fresh porcini in a buttery sauce rich with lemon; it was a wonderful dish that any Italian restaurant would be proud to serve, but it wasn’t exactly original.

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I ordered risotto Milanese as an appetizer. It was a good risotto, slightly soupy in the Venetian fashion, and made without a whole lot of cheese. But it brought the biggest surprise of the evening; when I ordered the waiter said, “Would you like a half order?” A year ago that would not have happened. Still, I was becoming blase about the quality of the service, and I began to wish that the menu would undergo a similar change.

Finally, it has. On my last visit lots of Bice specials could still be found on the menu. Dishes such as the tegamino of shiitake mushrooms and smoked mozzarella cheese--a huge portion of grilled shiitake mushrooms with little bits of diced tomato, lots of smoky melted cheese and a lone leaf of chervil on the top. Or an antipasto plate of grilled eggplant rolled around goat cheese and served with a salad.

There was plenty of pasta too. There was an appallingly pallid pesto and a truly terrible pasta y fagioli that was no more than weak soup with a few beans floating around it. On the other hand, there was incredibly delicious tortolloni filled with ricotta and spinach in a walnut cream sauce; each was a plump little pillow, the flavors in perfect balance.

But there were also a number of truly new dishes; some of the main courses seemed like pure Patrick Clark. Take those grilled scallops in a saffron and lobster “broth”; only Patrick Clark could consider so substantial a liquid as broth. The rest of us would probably call this wonderfully rich infusion of flavors a sauce. And almost all of us would be happy to eat it with the plump, delicately cooked scallops that were sitting beneath a blizzard of airy fried leeks.

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I was less taken with a thin piece of swordfish topped with a sort of Neapolitan froth of tomatoes, onions, peppers and olives. The poor swordfish never had a chance to stand up to all those heavyweight flavors; a more flavorful fish would have been much happier in their midst.

But who could even think of fish with that carre of veal sitting there? It was a chop of heroic proportions surrounded by lots of small, sweet, tender onions and a mountain of very buttery mashed potatoes topped with more fried leeks. It was one of those dishes that you eat slowly, jealously guarding every single bite. One of those dishes that you have no sooner finished before you start plotting when you can come back and have it again.

You wouldn’t come back for the desserts that are being served right now; they’re just not very good. The caramel ice cream doesn’t taste of caramel and has a slightly unpleasant texture. The white chocolate cake isn’t worth the calories. The creme caramel is mediocre.

But this will probably change. For one of the great pleasures of the new Bice--beyond the lovely room and pleasant service--is knowing that there’s a good cook at the helm who is only beginning to show us what he can do.

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Bice

301 N. Canon, Beverly Hills (213) 272-2423.

Open for lunch Monday-Saturday; for dinner daily. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for 2, food only, $50-$90.

Recommended dishes: smoked and cured swordfish, $10; ricotta and spinach tortolloni in walnut sauce, $15; carre of veal, $22; grilled scallops in saffron and lobster broth, $20.

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