Grills, Frills--But No Big Thrills

Once Bernard's at the Biltmore downtown was considered among the best French restaurants in Los Angeles. It offered serious food and formal service--it was the sort of place that people happily dressed up for.

But times changed. New restaurants caught on, and for the most part they weren't French and they weren't formal. The right to drop $100 on dinner while wearing cowboy hats and jeans (topped with an Armani sports coat) was an easily won victory for movie and music types who like to think of themselves as both rich and hip.

Perhaps in response, Bernard's has introduced a new menu that--in concept at least--is less formal and less French. As the first page of the new menu explains, Bernard's is now emphasizing grill food. In other words, the menu's been brought all the way up to 1987.

Some of it is the stuff of old-fashioned American restaurants--grilled T-bones, grilled veal chops, grilled swordfish, Caesar salad prepared tableside. Still--Bernard's can't help it--the new menu has a fancy French name, "Les Grillades." And many will recognize that several of Bernard's dishes from recent years remain.

What the menu actually offers are a lot of foodie hits from the '70s and '80s: Sichuan-style scallops with black bean sauce and sesame pasta, ahi tuna charred rare, a warm Sonoma goat cheese appetizer, a mache and arugula salad with balsamic vinegar and shavings of Reggiano Parmesan.

Is all this worth the steep prices that Bernard's still charges? Not always; much of the food doesn't live up to its fancy billing. The service, which is completely professional, does. If you show up without a tie, expect an old-fashioned look of contempt from the maitre d'.

* Bernard's at the Biltmore Hotel, 506 S. Grand St., Los Angeles, (213) 612-1580. Entrees $19.50 to $38.50.

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