AHI IN THE SKY : At the Venerable Tower Downtown, the Food Is Finally Challenging the View

In front of the Transamerica Center, a limousine idled. As we entered the foyer, the elevator doors opened, and two high-spirited teen-age couples, the boys decked out in formal white tails, the girls in slender evening dresses, stepped out. As they rushed into the night, the young men held the door open while the young women teetered through on mile-high heels, leaving the scent of gardenias behind. "Prom night," confirmed the guard on the 30th floor, smiling. "We've got a helipad on the roof, and they arrived by helicopter," he recounted, amused, as he ushered us into a second lift. Two more floors up to the Tower Restaurant and its drop-dead view of the city.

Regardless of how many times I've learned my lesson--that the quality of the cooking usually diminishes in inverse proportion to the quality of the panorama--I still arrive hopeful. I know I probably shouldn't be. That's because few restaurants-with-a-view make even a creditable attempt to do anything interesting, assuming that the bankable scene from the top will bring a steady supply of tourists and die-hard romantics.

Until recently, that was the case with the Tower. But since Akira Hirose, formerly of the Peninsula Beverly Hills, took over as chef last August, the food is edging up on the view.

Thirty years ago, this was one of the city's top French restaurants, with a French chef, a French maitre d' and a cellar of fine French wines. In fact, when it first opened, you needed a membership card to get in. And after all these years, when almost every old-guard restaurant has gone casual or gone out of business, the Tower remains a restaurant for grown-ups. Or anyone who would like to feel grown-up for the night. The lighting is soft, all the better to show off the view; the atmosphere is hushed and serene. A pianist tinkles old standards in the background. The silver is heavy, and the waiter unfolds your napkin with a flourish. And the menu now offers enough pleasant surprises and a few really good dishes to make this Downtown landmark worth a visit.

Reserve a table at dusk, when you can savor the spectacle of night falling over this vast city. A river of light, the Santa Monica Freeway flows in wide curves toward the setting sun as downtown empties. On my first visit, I was so engrossed in the fat wine list with its roster of older French vintage, I almost missed the sunset reflected in shoulder-to-shoulder skyscrapers.

To move some of the wine inventory, valued at $100,000, the restaurant has recently lowered the prices on many of its top imported wines, particularly Burgundies. (The '70s is as far back as the Burgundy list goes.) It takes more than a casual look, however, to ferret out the real finds, like one of the last bottles of '81 Vosne-Romanee from Henri Jayer, $40, which shows what a great winemaker can do with a mediocre vintage, or the '78 Cos d'Estournel Bordeaux, priced fairly at $50. A good buy, too, is the '90 Riesling Halbtrocken Kabinett, $20. It's definitely an old-fashioned list, with little space devoted to wines of the Rhone, Italy or Germany. Even California wine estates are outnumbered by the French.

The menu, for the most part, doesn't disappoint. One night steamed live scallops were listed as a special, eight tender little pillows presented in their shells with curry-stained slivers of braised fennel. I was just as impressed with Hirose's beautiful carpaccio: thinly sliced raw beef filet scattered with artichoke hearts and chips of Parmesan with a sharp wasabi horseradish sauce zigzagged over. And he has a way with shiitake mushrooms. Deep flavored and cooked to a creamy consistency, they're set on a cushion of garlic mashed potatoes and topped with a puff pastry lid.

But the best of this delicious lot had to be the seared sea scallops, also in puff pastry, almost caramelized on the outside and custardy within, their sweet richness balanced by the spinach beneath and a bracing lime sauce. I could happily make a meal of

these appetizers. I was less enthusiastic about a thick cucumber gazpacho with a hefty dose of cream that nearly obliterated the cucumber, or the salad of crisp endive and romaine showered with bits of black truffle, the leaves coated with an overpoweringly perfumed truffle oil.

One thing I learned in three meals at the Tower: You can trust this chef with seafood. Does a Los Angeles restaurant with any pretensions exist that doesn't list ahi tuna on the menu? Yet this recurring Tower special, a thick slab cooked rare at the center, blows away any boredom with its quality and its impeccable presentation. Grilled Atlantic salmon and the marinated swordfish are fine, too. And for red wine fans, there are grilled lamb chops in a simple rosemary jus, a thick, grilled pork chop in prune sauce and, occasionally, a tasty veal chop. One night the list of specials included sauteed venison medallions, rare at the center and served in a sticky red currant sauce alongside a celery-root puree and spatzle, the squiggly German-style noodle. Rare steak topped with a smear of Roquefort is a good match with the '79 Gaja Barbaresco (a bargain at $30). All is well until the duck breast, which arrives looking like a forlorn stir-fry improbably garnished with pieces of tart lemon flesh.

When it comes time for sweets, the waiters roll up with an elaborate three-tiered cart on which the desserts are displayed. One by one, the waiters describe each and joke that all are plastic, in reference to Japanese restaurants' penchant for exquisitely realistic plastic food displays. We stare hard, trying to decide if they're teasing or not. (They are.) But like most Japanese Western-style pastries, these are all form and very, very sweet. Every one of them is forgettable save for a special one night of ice cream drenched in raspberry liqueur and topped with shavings of white chocolate; at $12, though, it was twice the price of the others. The best plan would seem to be to skip dessert and pass to espresso in the bar. That is, until you taste the watery espresso. Well, there's always the view--which never disappoints.

*

Tower Restaurant (atop the Transamerica Center), 1150 S. Olive St., Los Angeles; (213) 746-1554. Dinner served Monday through Saturday; lunch served Monday through Friday. Full bar. Major credit cards accepted. Complimentary valet parking. Dinner for two, food only, $63-$100.

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