RESTAURANTS : JUST SO YOU DON'T GET LOST OR CONFUSED : The '80s' Last Stand : At Muse, the California cuisine, the look, the clientele and the attitude are emblematic of an era in L.A. restaurants

Jonathan Gold writes about restaurants and pop music for The Times

Muse could be the restaurant that time forgot, a relic from the days of Sean 'n' Madonna (who frequented the joint), and a shrine to the forgotten glories of paint-by-numbers California cuisine: carrot lasagnetta; ahi ceviche; duck egg rolls with Thai tea syrup and pineapple frappe. It's the kind of '80s place you didn't think existed any more. Opened at about the same time as Trumps and Spago, Muse may be the least talked-about trendy restaurant in town, and still one of the hardest to get into.

"You can't photograph the restaurant when it's empty," said the owner, "because people will think it looks like a construction site. You can't photograph it when it's full, because our celebrity customers wouldn't like it. Why don't you just photograph the sign?"

Oh, OK.

Until a couple of years ago, Muse barely had a sign at all. If you didn't know where the place was--that blank, gray wall a block west of El Coyote where all those parking valets hung out--your subscription to L.A. Style had probably expired. It's still pretty hard to see the Muse sign, gray-on-gray, until they backlight it after dark.

It's dark in Muse, really dark, relieved only by a few lumens that dribble down from some dimly spotlit Mapplethorpe photographs and two potted palms that glow like spiky nimbuses at either end of the room. A votive candle sputters at the table's edge.

A few yards away, behind the giant Borofsky, Dana Delaney and Winona Ryder are entertaining a dozen friends in a private dining area. But when somebody from their party trips past on her way to the ladies' room, it's impossible to tell if it's one of them or a hanger-on.

Above the bar, on the far wall of the restaurant, hand-blown beakers of designer grappa gleam like the helmets in Rembrandt paintings. At the bar, designers and fashion photographers sip cool Absolut martinis alongside Interview writers and the woman who used to manage the Go-Go's. Designer fish dart about a purple aquarium littered with neo-neo-classical architectural detritus. Muse has a clientele that looks as if it had stepped intact out of the pages of Elle--$2,200 aubergine-suede dusters and all.

When the goods show up in this '80s museum, they arrive heaped high on big oval platters, and one dish pretty much looks like the others. All entrees are gray in the dark.

If you'd held a candle a couple of inches above one entree on a recent Thursday night, this is what you might have seen:

1) white beans

2) black beans

3) radish sprouts

4) carrot batons

5) carrot shreds

6) spaghetti squash

7) black sesame seeds

8) grilled eggplant

9) chives

10) zucchini

11) broccoli

12) cauliflower

13) cilantro

14) tomatillos

15) red bell pepper

16) red onion

17) red cabbage

18) honey-Dijon-mustard-marinated

pork tenderloin.

The dish tasted like pork 'n' beans.

Muse is a popular first-date restaurant for Hollywood media workers. If conversation stalls midway through dinner, the theory goes, you can always talk about the food. At those times, even 17 garnishes may not be truly enough.

The menu here is pretty interesting, and from it, like a geologist analyzing a piece of Devonian shale, you can trace the broad outlines of the pre-Spago California-cuisine era. You can see evidence in the salads: a cucumber-avocado macedoine (a tip of the hat to Ken Frank of La Toque); a fashionably pale salad of Belgian endive, ground almonds and Stilton cheese (which works); and sauteed mushrooms with too much lettuce and a sour Champagne vinaigrette. There's evidence in the entrees too: tasty medallions of rare ahi tuna, served with asparagus in a green-peppercorn sauce; decent sauteed sturgeon served under a lump of mustard; grilled salmon with tomato and basil and extra-virgin olive oil. In 20 years, this is what nostalgia restaurants are going to be reviving instead of macaroni and cheese.

A few years ago, Muse had a little thing for Southwestern cooking, and you can still get a great plate of nachos, piled high with black beans and fresh guacamole, big enough for everyone to share, and a really good bowl of pureed black-bean soup, smoky and smooth. Mostly, though, the Southwestern thing shows up in the restaurant's fondness for chopped tomatillos, which are likely to turn up almost anywhere.

These days, the restaurant is leaning more toward the Pacific Rim, with the hoisin, curry and ginger dishes that every third restaurant on the Sunset Strip seems to specialize in. Muse gives that overworked style a sort of, well, Musian twist that separates its food from the others'--duck egg rolls with Thai tea syrup and pineapple frappe, lettuce "tacos" wrapped around a sweet, vaguely Indonesian-tasting filling of slivered chicken and vegetables, or a hint of black bean sauce in an otherwise conventional dish of steamed clams.

Chow mein here, is shrimp, beef and chicken tossed with soft noodles and vegetables, and dosed with a salty wallop of Thai fermented-fish sauce that you should be able to smell from across the room. Where you might expect revisionist chow mein to be homey and cornstarch-laden, Muse gives you the sort of thing you'd probably order once in a late-night Thai noodle shop, then dismiss as too authentic. Something called "simmered chicken tenders in Thai curry with currants and mango" was delicious in a Trader Vic's sort of way, with what seemed like a dozen levels of tropical-fruit sweetness going on below a veil of mild chile heat.

Try the crusty, warm bread pudding, which is excellent. Avoid any pastas that sound too weird, because they are.


7360 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 934-4400.

Open for lunch, Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Sat., 6 p.m. to midnight. Full bar. Valet parking. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Recommended dishes: Cuban black bean soup, $5; chicken curry, $14; sauteed peppered ahi tuna, $19; bread pudding, $6. Dinner for two, food only, $42-$64.

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