Restaurants, like humans, are prone to consistent attempts at self-improvement. I am always hearing of a menu revamped here, a new chef there, a major remodel, a more affable maitre d', larger portions, smaller prices, a fancier way to fold napkins.
With all this fussing, do restaurants actually improve? That is what I set to find out recently, when I returned to three restaurants for which I'd once had high hopes. Each place had disappointed. But since my last visits, each had allegedly embarked on substantial improvements: Book Soup acquired a new chef. Da Pasquale 2 changed menus and kitchen staff. And Tommy Tang's in Hollywood moved to a new home.
Book Soup Bistro, in a space where three restaurants tried and failed before, opened with a beautiful room, erratic service and a confused menu. Now, the cozy, atmospheric rooms host literary readings and a steady neighborhood clientele. The service is a little more gracious and the new chef, Wendy Roskin, has streamlined the menu. The food now walks that pleasantly blurry line between bistro fare and home-style cooking.
A Provencal onion tart would be better if made on pastry rather than spongy white bread. Alphabet soup, a charming concept for this bookish restaurant, tastes like watery tomato sauce with chunks of grilled vegetables in it, but a pureed mushroom soup is rich, earthy. Tender, meaty short ribs come with fluffy polenta and long-stewed collard greens--too bad the barbecue sauce is so sweet. The improvement here may be incremental, but there is a growing steadiness of purpose and identity that was missing in the three restaurants that used to occupy this address.
The original Da Pasquale in Beverly Hills has long been a favorite haunt, so when I tried Da Pasquale 2 over a year ago, I was disappointed by lackluster cooking and distracted service. I've since been told that substantial changes had occurred, but a recent return visit dashed any hope. The menu, two faded Xeroxed pages, was boring. The food itself had no sparkle, no spirit: Each dish seemed mere groceries hastily prepared, heaped onto the plate by anonymous hands--loveless, in a word. Marinated peppers, Caesar salad, caprese were notable only for the indifference with which they were assembled.
An otherwise respectable spicy penne all' arrabbiata was loaded with mushrooms, undercooked linguine with clams couldn't have been duller. Medallions of filet mignon in a murky mushroom sauce were overcooked and mealy. The service was alternately forgetful, neglectful and overly familiar. One waiter cracked jokes and sat at our table; another commented on how much food we ordered. Meanwhile, it took 20 minutes to get a single cocktail. When we inquired about the delay, our waiter said, "Sometimes the bartender makes drinks, sometimes he just drinks them."
Occasionally oldsters show more flexibility than the new kids on the block. The Hollywood Tommy Tang's had been around for 13 years, yet like so many other restaurants, it suffered from dwindling clientele and relentless expenses. This spurred the owners to move several blocks east into the attractive, versatile space that ever-so-briefly last housed the Lipp. Here, the kitchen is considerably larger and the rent considerably less. Savings are passed onto the customers in the form of prices that are up to 30% lower.
There is a happy buzz at this revived Tommy Tang's. The place runs smoothly, confidently--the service gracious, the food trustworthy. Sushi may be unremarkable and on the pricey side, but Thai-inspired dishes are consistently better than when I ate them at the Pasadena Tommy Tang's last June. Highlights include the endive salad with beet oil and chunks of mozzarella; spicy, aromatic mint noodles; "Tommy" duck; and 2 pepper salmon--just ignore the cumin-rich couscous.
* Book Soup Bistro, 8800 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-9944. Open 7 days for lunch and dinner. Full bar. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $26-$55. * Da Pasquale 2, 8782 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-6464. Open 7 days for lunch and dinner. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $25-52.
* Tommy Tang's , 7313 Melrose Ave. (213) 937-5733. Open 7 days for lunch and dinner. Full bar. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $28-$60.