RESTAURANTS : Toque of the Town


Since opening its aristocratic portals in 1978, L’Orangerie has had the dubious distinction of being Los Angeles’ most authentic, most expensive French restaurant. Only recently, though--thanks to the arrival of one of Paris’ best young chefs, Gilles Epie--has dinner at the La Cienega institution seemed truly worth the hefty tab.

Founders Gerard and Virginie Ferry wooed Epie across the Atlantic in April and appear to have wisely given him carte blanche. In turn, the 36-year-old has replaced almost all the fare from the old regime with his own vibrant, Provencal-inspired dishes. (Regulars needn’t worry: The famous soft-scrambled eggs in the shell, with caviar spooned over, are still available.) And for the first time in a long while, L’Orangerie’s food is equal to its elegant setting.

Everything about L’Orangerie is very French, especially the decor, which evokes a winter greenhouse: the potted orange trees, the formal 17th- and 18th-Century landscape paintings, the romantic banquettes, the extravagant fountain of white lilies, gladioli and roses that erupts from a vase and reaches almost to the ceiling. Not to mention the soft, artful lighting that makes everyone look potentially interesting and possibly rich.


And people do dress. Two elderly women arrive one night in their chauffeur-driven Rolls, both wearing vintage cocktail dresses and draped in jewels, and all the women at another table seem to have raided their safe deposit boxes for diamonds. Just as formal is the service, which is watchful and very correct. Virginie Ferry plays the part of haughty patronne , adroitly working the room to soothe and pamper longtime customers, advise on the menu and assess how things are going.

The leisurely pace of an evening at L’Orangerie feels very European as well. Unless you’re dining very early or very late, tables are rarely double-booked. With no one panting for your table, you can relax for the night. Perfect for what’s to come.

Epie’s debut has been terrific so far. I was lucky enough to dine at his one-star Le Miravile (his other restaurant was the more casual Campagne et Provence), so I know that he is a chef blessed with both technique and soul. During the first week, his food tasted very close to that of his Paris restaurant, a feat that shows what a consummate professional he is. In California, ingredients are subtly different from their French counterparts, most kitchen staffs are smaller and less well-trained and customers here won’t eat half the things the French do, such as innards or bony fish. (Guest chef Alain Ducasse, who was here in June, wasn’t nearly as successful in re-creating the dishes he produces at his three-star restaurant at the Hotel de Paris in Monaco.) With the exception of one hit-and-miss meal early on, each time I’ve dined at L’Orangerie recently, Epie’s cooking has been right on the mark.

As French as it is, his food seems tailor-made for California. It’s an exuberant, sophisticated take on what the menu calls “the cuisine of the sun,” that is, Provencal- and Mediterranean-inflected cooking. He might pique your appetite with a surprising little dish of fresh sardines with tomato and a touch of vinegar, blowing away the formality of the room with a single bite. Or a small crock of artichoke hearts and pickled shallots in a fragrant green-gold olive oil infused with crushed coriander seeds. Then comes a thin-walled beignet glazed with caramelized Port, a dish I recognize from Paris: Inside is luscious warm foie gras. But I lust after the petals of palest pink foie gras, swirled over a mound of celery root remoulade that has been barely dressed, all the better to contrast the velvety duck liver and the pale root’s earthy crunch. Sweet langoustine tails come in a lovely ragou^t of baby artichokes and pearl onions perfumed with sweet spices.

Stuffed tomatoes a l’escabeche are delicious: Ripe, red orbs, seeds squeezed out, with miniature carrots, fresh peas and favas tucked into the crevices, all surrounded by fat gold chickpeas dusted with cumin and paprika. Green asparagus tips encircle a “charlotte” of crab meat decorated with a delicate tomato-blushed mayonnaise.

Unlike many chefs, Epie seems as adept with seafood as he is with meats and poultry. John Dory with roasted figs posed on top like fleshy flowers is superb. Sweet seared scallops stacked with a wafer of melting rich bone marrow and musty coins of black truffle is every bit as good as the Paris version. Epie also takes risks: He cooks lobster with fava beans, bacon--and cinnamon--and makes it work. One night he proposed a special: a slab of salmon glazed with sesame seeds and crude-oil-weight aceto balsamico , Modena’s black gold, on a fluffy cushion of tabbouleh redolent of exotic spices.

A dish I intend to order again and again is his beef tenderloin, laid out on a platter in finger-thick slices. Blood rare, it is marvelously flavorful meat, suffused at the edges with salt from being cooked under a layer of sea salt. With it comes a plate of lighter-than-air souffled potatoes. There’s also a a soulful veal shank cooked slowly for seven hours. Soft, almost carmelized, the meat is set down on an intense carrot puree that would be the envy of any grand-mere.

Desserts during the first few months were not up to same level as first courses and entrees. But just as we go to press, a new pastry chef has come from Paris--to the rescue, I hope.


Restaurants in France are merciless when it comes to wine prices. And L’Orangerie, alas, is genuinely French in this regard as well. Prices are extremely high, and it’s difficult to find a wine under $75 that you’d really relish drinking.

Still, because dinner at L’Orangerie is so special, you’ll want to linger, perhaps with a glass of Francis D’Arroze’s splendid old Armagnac. Everyone wants to sit in the main dining room, but I love the smaller, more intimate garden room with rain beating on the glass roof, or on balmy nights, the panels open to the sky and the luminous moon sailing low.


CUISINE: French. AMBIENCE: Elegant dining and garden rooms. BEST DISHES: foie gras, langoustine tails, John Dory with figs and spices, scallops with marrow and truffles, beef tenderloin. WINE PICKS: Muscat “Theo Faller” Domaine Weinbach 1992, Cha^teau La Lagune 1989. FACTS: 903 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 652-9770. Closed Monday. Dinner for two, food only, $104 to $254; vegetarian menu $42 per person. Corkage $25. Valet parking.