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Stringfellows : Peter Stringfellow’s World of Mirrors : The food’s good, but do you really want to sit in this room?

<i> Ruth Reichl is The Times' restaurant critic and food editor. </i>

We have a rule about reviewing restaurants: We always go at least three times. There are lots of reasons for this, most of them having to do with fairness.

But after my second visit to Stringfellows I found myself making a third reservation--and then breaking it. I made another--and broke it again. This happened six times: I just couldn’t bring myself to go back to the restaurant. So instead of breaking another reservation, I simply broke the rule.

It wasn’t the food: I liked what I ate on my first visit very much. I liked what I ate on my second even more. Chef Margaret Fischlein is only 25 years old, and although her food occasionally suffers from over-exuberance (the portions are sometimes too big, and she has a tendency to put too many ingredients in her food), she is talented, her ideas are interesting--and the food that she makes tastes very good.

But does it taste so good that you want to sit in this appalling landscape of mirrors, chrome, pink neon, white pianos and black leather to eat it? If you’re me, no. Especially on a weekend when, despite a $40-per-person minimum for food, there are so many people crowded into the place that it looks like an over-attended bar mitzvah and you actually have to ask people to move their chairs as you weave your way through the tables to the ladies room. (Once you get to the ladies room, incidentally, you will find an attendant who ostentatiously hands you a paper towel.)

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This is after you have actually been seated--an adventure unto itself. When you arrive, you are greeted by no fewer than three people, one of whom comes outside to escort you in to the reception stand. There another person checks your name--and a third leads you to your table. If you’ve got the idea that this seems graciously welcoming, you’re wrong: One guest who ran this gantlet arrived at the table with a wry grin. “I was afraid they weren’t going to let me in,” he said.

Ten minutes later, after watching a gentleman at the bar attempting to pick up someone a third his age in a backless dress, my guest was saying he wished they hadn’t let him in. This was, of course, before the arrival of the wild mushroom salad--an extraordinarily delicious tangle that tasted fresh from the forest floor. Before the wonderful grilled quail salad, the bird slightly gamy when played off against a sprinkling of sour cherries. Before the advent of grilled prawns in wasabi dressing resting on a pearly bed of pasta. And before we were served what turned out to be the best crab salad in L.A.

“Why are they serving food this good in a room like this?” I found myself crying just as Peter Stringfellow materialized at the table. Stringfellow, whom the press release calls “quite a colorful character,” likes to send out pictures of himself escorting Princess Diana. In the picture, he’s turned out in a long white tie, but he has turned up at his own club in a white suit with shorts for pants. “The food is different in all my clubs, " he explained. “I let each chef do his own thing.” Stringfellow stood there, reminiscing about the chef in Miami, the one in New York, the one in London before breaking off, cocking his head and saying, “I really like Margaret’s food, don’t you?”

In fact, I’ve liked almost everything she’s cooked: striped bass in a crust of mustard and shallots; very tender lamb in a crust of black beans; short ribs with horseradish potatoes and tiny onions still in their skins. John Dory in yet another crust, this one of sun-dried tomatoes, was a rather whimsical upscale take on barbecued fish. It was the perfect contrast to salmon in a bright green pepper sauce.

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Fischlein isn’t perfect; to my mind almost every dish has too many ingredients. Why was there avocado in a salad of baby spinach and duck confit? And did we really need crab, lemon peel and spinach in a single risotto? But I still think this is some of the most interesting food in town.

I liked the desserts too. Homemade chocolate ice cream was soft and dark and rich; there was a fine pecan creme brulee--and the blood orange cheesecake left a particularly good taste in my mouth.

But it was one that evaporated when I climbed the stairs. I just couldn’t help going up to take a look around the disco. There I found a dance floor lit by an enormous neon butterfly and surrounded by high tables occupied by morose groups of women with huge hair. Meanwhile, women in tiny tutus teetered around in high heels serving drinks. It was all pretty depressing.

So depressing, in fact, that I never wanted to go back. On Oscar night there will be a big blowout at Stringfellows for Ginger Rogers and Jimmy Stewart. Lots of important people will be there. They will undoubtedly eat very well. I’m very glad I haven’t been invited.

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Stringfellows

* 2 Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills, (213) 285-9909.

* Open for lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday (dancing until 4 a.m. on weekends). Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $55-$105 ($80 per couple minimum on weekends).

* Recommended dishes: Wild mushroom salad, $10.95; grilled quail salad, $12.95; crab salad, $13.95; striped bass, $23.95; grilled veal chop, $29.95; cheesecake, $6.95.

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