RESTAURANTS : BAFFLED IN BEVERLY HILLS : How to Get a Terrific Rep and Fawning Fans Without Sweating Over a Hot Stove

As restaurant editor, I get a lot of phone calls. A couple looking for a place to dine and dance on their 50th wedding anniversary. Restaurant-goers infuriated by a recent review. Publicists who haven't quite grasped that The Times' restaurant critics dine anonymously. People informing me of their worst restaurant experience in 35 years. People telling me about a fantastic little restaurant they've just discovered (and then I learn they're either investors or relatives of the owner). One recent caller left several messages, claiming she had "some very interesting information regarding restaurants." She sounded insinuating, insistent. Maybe she does have some kind of scoop, I began to think. Finally, I called her back.

Her "very interesting information" turned out to be a diatribe on a highly regarded French restaurant to which she had taken some out-of-town friends. She was astonished that everyone seems to consider it one of the best restaurants in the city. Do I consider it a top restaurant? Yes, I do. "Well!" she spluttered. "There was sand in the vegetables! The whole experience was awful, and I was extremely embarrassed I ever brought my guests there!"

Then my caller introduced her real agenda: the restaurant she considers tops in Los Angeles, La Veranda in Beverly Hills. Now it was my turn to be astonished. I had been to the Beverly Drive restaurant a few weeks earlier and had come away shaking my head, wondering how St. Louis native David Slay ever acquired such a puzzling reputation and enthusiastic following.

The night I visited, the chef spent the entire evening in the dining room. Considering the food that was coming out of the kitchen that night, he would have been better off behind the stoves, or at the very least monitoring what was going on there. Instead, he was chatting up regulars or was ensconced at the bar. At one point, he strode up to our table and abruptly shook hands with everyone, never introducing himself. He waited, perhaps for compliments, and when none were forthcoming (we had had only our starters at this point), he pulled the wine from its bucket, looked at the label (a Bonny Doon riesling) and asked if we liked it. Too sweet, we murmured. And then, just as abruptly, he was gone.

He should have asked about the food. Avocado, sunflower seed and Bibb salad was doused in excruciatingly salty soy dressing. While Wolfgang Puck has his Jewish pizza, Slay has his Jewish quesadilla, stuffed with smoked salmon and tons of mascarpone , a truly awful concoction. Another specialty is pastina , cooked like risotto, with porcini mushrooms or shrimp and corn . Not a good idea, as this tiny star-shaped pasta becomes gummy. A pile of deep-fried spinach with lemon and Parmesan was heavy with oil. Calf's liver was overcooked and covered with slimy onions; polenta accompanying the grilled chicken (a special) tasted like instant corn pone.

Sometimes when you have a bad meal at a restaurant, you have to chalk it up to an off evening--a crisis in the kitchen or the fact that the chef wasn't there that night (though, in truth, this is no excuse). But if the place is good, you can usually detect a flash of something more: a truly interesting menu, ingredients that impress, one dish that soars. And that's enough for me, at least, to give the place another chance.

In this case, the chef was in. If he didn't realize things weren't going well that night, then he's in real trouble. Nevertheless, a couple of weeks later, I decided to check up on La Veranda, if only to confirm my initial impressions. So I went back for the famous Sunday night "grazing menu." Yes indeed, this '80s trend is still alive--barely--in Beverly Hills, at least. We started with a quite decent humus, a lemony tabbouleh salad, caponata doused with balsamic vinegar. Encouraging, until the next flight of dishes: a special of fish cakes with a vinegary red pepper aioli, undercooked veal short ribs in a sugary so-called barbecue sauce, leathery "toasted" ravioli with a grayish, foul-tasting stuffing, shepherd's pie made with a tough lamb ragout, and ghostly-white mashed potatoes. I left more bewildered than ever.

Still, I'm willing to give it one more try, this time on a Friday night, when I figure Slay will be at his best, his regulars will be in, the kitchen working well. And while it's not as dismal as the first two times, the meal is very ordinary for the price. The service is solicitous, the flowers lovely. But too many dishes have a sameness to them. Pastas are wildly overpriced ($16.50 for rigatoni with broccoli and hot pepper oil!). Mashed potatoes are gluey, sauces salty. None of the meats have much flavor, and while the double veal rib chop is pretty good, for $34 it ought to be the best veal chop on the planet.

Why is this place filled when restaurants where you can eat twice as well for half the price are not? I'm still shaking my head.

David Slay's La Veranda, 225 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 274-7246. Closed weekends for lunch. Dinner for two, food only, $58-$105. Corkage , $15.

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