When a restaurant in France gets its second star from the Guide Michelin, it knows it is time to spend money. The acquisition of the ultimate third star does not mean that the chef has become more talented or that the food is dramatically improved. It mostly means that the restaurant has graduated to a level of almost absurd luxury. One hopeful two-star Paris restaurant even bought a limousine in which to chauffeur customers home at the end of the meal.
In Los Angeles, which pretends not to care very much for the dignity that comes with great luxury, only one restaurant still has pretensions to the opulence of the three-star French restaurant: L'Orangerie. And with a recent infusion of cash--more than $300,000 just to spruce the place up--it has recaptured the glory of its early years.
It is not that the banquettes have been reupholstered and the floors refinished. It is not that there is a splendid new terrace on which to eat lunch. It's not that the walls seem brighter and the flowers bigger than before. All of these are nice things, but even nicer is the fact that the service is now worthy of the room.
A few years ago, a waiter at L'Orangerie arrived at my table and asked, "Who gets the chicken?" That is not a question I want to answer when that chicken costs $28. At another long-gone dinner, my favorite dish, eggs with caviar, arrived with a big fingerprint emblazoned on the eggshell. Wineglasses were filled too full, dishes removed too early. This does not happen any more. The service here, in fact, has risen to such heights that L'Orangerie busboys outshine the waiters in most local restaurants.
The combined result of this attentive service and the calm, beautiful room is an extraordinary experience. Add live music, and you find yourself thinking that you'd gladly give up two dinners in a lesser restaurant for the pleasure of eating one here.
Chef Jean-Claude Parachini's food fits politely into the setting: It is beautiful and restrained, offering no rude jolts, no untoward surprises. The waiter appears bearing beautiful little plates as a welcoming gift, each containing an oval mound of red pepper mousse in a deeper red pool of tomato coulis. It is more exciting to look at than to eat, but it is very pleasant.
The salads are generous, luxurious, beautifully composed. Each is an expensive little still life. One has lobster, potatoes and a hint of garlic; one has langoustines, green beans, basil and artichoke; another, slices of foie gras balanced between spears of asparagus and green beans. Each is large enough to be a meal in itself, and each fairly shouts money.
Although langoustines between layers of crisp, sesame-strewn pastry in a curry sauce may sound aggressive, it is not. The langoustines sit plumply between the pastry layers; the curry is more a whisper than a shout. Even the interesting-sounding fresh walnut soup turns out to be the essence of subtlety.
Then there are those eggs, which have been scrambled, put back into the shell and generously topped with caviar. This is about as perfect a dish as you can imagine, especially in this setting.
The entrees are more forceful. Oxtail braised in burgundy is the manliest dish on the menu--one that is surprisingly robust. The lobster with roasted potatoes and whole pieces of garlic is another hearty plate of food. This is Marc Meneau's dish; the meal I had last time Meneau came to town was the single best meal I've ever been served by a visiting chef. (Meneau, three-star chef-owner of L'Esperance in Vezelay, is cooking at L'Orangerie through tomorrow.)
There is a lot of fish on this menu, and much of it is wonderful. Salmon is topped with spinach and then covered with clay and baked. When the clay is removed, the fish is left--tender, moist and almost without calories. It is served simply, with a dressing on the side made of olive oil from L'Orangerie's own grove in France.
The kitchen also cooks a whole daurade --sea bream, one of France's finest fish--coated in a crust of salt. This is another straightforward preparation. One night there was also a cake made of sole and spinach layered in pastry in a sauce of white wine and cream. It was classic French cooking--complex, rich, professional--the kind you rarely find in American restaurants any more.
Pommes soufflees are another wonderful anachronism. Here they are served with the fish, the lamb, the beef tenderloin. Crisp, airy puffs of potato that are a triumph of food chemistry, they come nestled in a napkin.
Desserts are from that same school of food magic. The souffles are classics--tasteful hot air. The sorbets are masterful--each flavor a different texture: Green apple is slightly sour, almost a granita; the passion fruit is smooth, unctuous, tropically exotic, and the chocolate is intense, straightforward, with an edge of bitterness. And what child--of any age--could resist a chocolate cup and saucer filled with Kahlua parfait?
L'Orangerie is beautiful at night, but in the daytime, with the sunlight streaming in and music playing, it is the quietest, most relaxing place in town for lunch. The restaurant started serving lunch in February, and, unlike dinner, it's affordable.
The food--much of which is low in fat, sodium, cholesterol and calories--can be so polite that it's insipid, but when it's good, it's very good indeed. Skip the pretty stew made of baby vegetables and the "chicken pie" with its crust of potatoes. Both are beautiful and dull. But the caramelized tomato tart is fabulous and would make a perfect appetizer split for two people. The tian of eggplant is rich and appealing--peasant cooking at its most luxurious. The salads are large and elegant, and some of the meat dishes are superb. I particularly liked a paillard of veal with lemon. It came on a pile of sauteed spinach with a piece of filo crinkled on top. Around this were pieces of veal topped with candied lemon peel. It was both delicious and surprising.
I wish that the food at L'Orangerie was generally more surprising. The chef should be bolder, more aggressive, more playful. After all, in this setting most people would happily eat just about anything.
L'Orangerie, 903 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 652-9770. Dinner served Tuesday through Sunday , lunch Tuesday through Friday. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $90-$170. Lunch for two, food only, $44-$83.