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Restaurants : GOOD--BUT NOT YET GREAT : The Room Is Still Worth a Visit, but L’Orangerie’s Food Hasn’t Quite Arrived

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“I hate L’Orangerie,” the Reluctant Gourmet says lugubriously. “It’s so stuffy. Can’t we just go somewhere and eat hamburgers?”

And so I tell him that the place has, reportedly, changed. There’s a new chef, from L’Ambroisie, I say, one of the best restaurants in Paris. The RG yawns. I whip out one of the (many) recent raves about the restaurant and begin reading aloud.

I tell him about a piece of prime rib the size of a steak, served with the bone on one side, the marrow on the other. He begins to look a little interested. Then I tell him about the best dessert there--a whole apple pie for just one person--and he agrees that it might be possible, just this once, to forgo his hamburger.

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I am very happy about this; I have been dreaming about curried langoustines and spinach in sesame-studded puff pastry and about eating really great classic French food in my own hometown.

“If everyone thinks this place is so great,” he asks, walking into the romantic 18th-Century room of L’Orangerie, “how come there aren’t more people here?” I murmur something soothing about it being a weeknight, but my heart sinks slightly. He has a point. This place has been getting great press since the arrival of chef Jean-Claude Parachini a few months ago. Surely there are more than 16 people in Los Angeles willing to spend $100 a head for great French food?

The RG peers at the menu, frowning. “All I see here is a grilled prime rib with some fancy sauce. It’s for two people--and it costs $75,” he mutters.

I am undergoing my own disappointments. Those curried langoustines don’t seem to be anywhere on the menu, and a reputedly wonderful chartreuse of lobster also has disappeared. In fact, I can’t help noticing, this is an entirely different menu from the one I’ve been reading about.

The RG perversely orders the salad. “I can’t resist spending $17 of someone else’s money on a salad,” he admits. Like trumpets announcing its arrival, the aroma of truffle oil floats triumphantly in front of the salad, growing stronger as it nears the table. “Roquefort cheese, potato crisps, truffle oil . . . “ the RG says, pointing with his fork. “I feel like I’m being bribed to eat my greens.”

“But it’s a wonderful salad,” I can’t help saying.

“For $17,” he says, “it should be.” I think that’s as close to a yes as I’m likely to get.

My own hot, crispy oysters are less impressive; more flaccid than crisp, they ring the plate, each oyster separated from its neighbor by a little cream bullet containing celery root, apple and tartar sauce. The proportions are off: No sane person would eat equal amounts of oysters and sauce.

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“Where are the bones?” the RG says when the meat arrives. His plate contains a few proper slices of meat, a little cupcake of potatoes and mushrooms and a lot of sauce. “ This ,” asks the RG, “is what you dragged me here for?”

It is, in fact, a very good piece of meat. “It tastes like a roast-beef sundae,” grouses the RG, poking at the sauce. What he means by this is that the rich reduction has transformed the meat from he-man, all-American simplicity to a classic French dish. “I’d rather have a hamburger,” he says.

From there, it’s downhill. The warm apple pie--which has been on the menu since the day L’Orangerie opened--is as far from mom’s apple pie as a combination of flour, sugar and apples can get. It’s light, elegant and absolutely delicious, but it is not what the RG had in mind. “I don’t care if the world’s greatest chef shows up,” he says, settling into the car. “Don’t ever ask me to go back to that place.”

I myself do go back, several times. I am hoping, in vain, for the curried langoustines , for the sweet-and-sour calf’s liver I have read about. Alas, the current menu is considerably less interesting than the one Parachini started out with.

This is not to say that the food isn’t good; it is. There is a foie gras with spiced figs that tastes like something Marie de Medicis might have served with pride, so exotic are the flavors. There is a tangle of plump langoustines with leeks and slivers of black truffle, and those wonderful scrambled eggs with caviar, a L’Orangerie classic.

My favorite entrees have been the daurade-- red snapper stacked on a bed of sliced potato--and bouillabaisse. The latter came on a flat plate, not in a bowl, in a sauce spiked with saffron, a plate of rouille- covered toasts on the side. It was the best bouillabaisse I’ve had in America.

The best dessert I’ve had here was a flaky pastry filled with fresh dates in an understated pastry cream that allowed the intense sweetness of the fruit to shine through. I’d pass on the sorbets, all of which seemed like pale imitations of ice cream, but the caramelized apple pie is still the star of the dessert list.

And that’s the problem with the new chef: For the most part, the old dishes are still the best. I had hoped that Parachini had turned L’Orangerie into a great French restaurant. He hasn’t. But if I wanted to celebrate a special occasion in a really fancy, expensive French restaurant, this would be the place I’d choose.

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Provided, of course, that the Reluctant Gourmet was planning to stay home.

L’Orangerie, 903 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 652-9770. Open for dinner nightly. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $98-$250.

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