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NIGHT AND DRAI : They’re Lining Up on La Cienega Again--This Time for Stars and Bistro Fare

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Do appearances count? California’s unemployment figures still slouch toward double digits, the austerity thing is still chic, but up on La Cienega Boulevard, the Bentleys are stacked up again, the Benzes triple-parked almost to the double yellow line, because the old L’Ermitage space is back in business as a restaurant called Drai’s. It’s a hot new place to wear Chanel, and the points-on-the-gross crowd is happy. Baby artichokes reign once again on this edge of Restaurant Row.

The proprietor here is Victor Drai, a Frenchman once famous for dating beautiful actresses but now somewhat better known as the movie producer who holds the “Weekend at Bernie’s” franchise.

“Hollywood thinks I’m rich because I drive a Rolls,” Drai once told a reporter. “But that’s just my way of living.”

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Drai’s is the darndest place: a wealthy person’s restaurant with almost reasonable prices, an uncomplicated bistro where pretension--and European accents--seems to be at an all-time high. Here are the stylish young air-kissers in their $2,000 black suits; here also are the rather richer men who are out for the evening with their “nieces” and who wear, under their rumpled sports coats, T-shirts that look as if the Shar-Pei has been nesting in them. (Neither set of customers, jaded as they were, was above gawking at basketball star Doctor J the other night.) The silver is Christofle, the china Villeroy & Boch, the linen heavy and white. Potatoes are served in tiny, gleaming copper saucepans. The wine on half the tables is the pretty Provencal rose from Domaine Ott. The soft, golden glow of the lighting makes everyone look like something painted by Renoir. The elusive chef Claude Segal mans the stoves.

When you arrive for your reservation, no matter how many tables may be empty, you will be seated for a moment in the elegant lounge toward the front of the restaurant, where M. Drai no doubt hopes you will be tempted to spring for a round of Champagne. Even if Drai’s now serves gazpacho and steak with French fries, this building, this dining room built by the late Jean Bertranou, was once the birthplace of the new California cuisine.

At one time, chef Segal was well-known for his facility with dishes like coulibiac, a fiendishly complicated fish preparation that is one of the cornerstones of la grande cuisine , and Segal was poised to become the greatest California French chef since Bertranou. Segal’s fans can seem like jilted lovers sometimes, seduced by one restaurant of his after another only to see him take up with some newer, more alluring kitchen--Ma Maison, Bistango, Four Oaks, MaBe, Rancho Valencia, Picnic--with his cooking becoming less formal each time. His followers sigh, temporarily bereft of his giant composed salads, his masterful wine-reduction sauces, his manly pepper-coated fish. These days, more than 10 years and half a dozen California bistros removed from his tenure as a two-star chef in Paris, Segal is best-known for his carrot-ginger soup.

People like fancy restaurants in Los Angeles, but they don’t like to pay for them, and Segal seems to content himself with a few clever twists--not too filling--on familiar themes: lightly grilled sea bass filets on a bed of sweet, thyme-scented carrots; cornmeal-dusted whitefish filets, sauteed crisp, on a bed of stewed leeks; garlicky grilled swordfish on a bed of watercress.

Lovely small artichokes are scattered on a disc of puff pastry, sprinkled with fresh herbs, garnished with a tangle of roasted sweet peppers and a few lemony crumbles of goat cheese. The dish, a deconstructed pizza of user-friendly California ingredients, almost dissolves on the tongue. Cool, firm slices of house-cured salmon are draped over a crunchy heap of shredded fennel that has been drizzled with fruity olive oil and lime juice, and though the pairing of fish and fennel is nothing new, the contrast of textures is superb. Whitefish is stacked into a sort of napoleon with crisp sheets of pastry and a few dollops of caramelized pear-onion jam; smoked salmon is tucked into a baked potato; tiny black mussels are simply steamed and garnished with chopped tomatoes; rather mushy caviar is spooned into an overpoached egg. There’s nothing wrong with this food, but most of it seems less like cooking than like assemblage, as if the world were a salad.

Of course, when Segal is cooking, sometimes the world is a salad: mammoth piles of curly endive and baby lettuces and such, almost “Close Encounter” freakout size, garnished with frizzles of sweet onion and starring things like smoked duck breast chunks or crisp nuggets of fried sweetbreads with mushrooms.

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Segal has made a small specialty of potato dishes. The garlic-tinged potato gratin is spectacular; the fries are good, the CD-size potato cake fine; the luscious potatoes boulangere , roasted with meat drippings, thyme and rosemary, are wonderful, and the combination potato plate, a trio of little copper saucepans, is a mandatory shared side order with just about anything

It is with the meat entrees that Drai’s reveals itself to be less California bistro than bistro-bistro: grilled Spencer steak coated with a thick cream sauce, gritty with cracked pepper; roast chicken with garlic; sliced leg of lamb, braised with white wine for seven hours; giant, salty haunches of duck confit, crackly-skinned and as greaseless as anything cooked in quarts of poultry fat could hope to be, served on a layer of wine-stewed mushrooms.

Drai’s has the usual creme brulees, tart tatins and dense chocolate whatevers, but what you want is the crisp, hot apple tart with ice cream. Apple tarts, like socialites, can never be too rich or too thin.

Drai’s, 730 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 358-8585. Dinner served nightly. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $48-$77.

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