STYLE / RESTAURANTS : WHERE THE BUFFALO GRAZE

The term supper club can't help but sound sophisticated. It conjures up an image from one of my mother's treasured photo albums: she and her girlfriends smiling from a booth of a Manhattan supper club sometime in the '40s. Their shoulders are bare; their lips, rouged. This, their expressions seem to say, is the cat's pajamas. And that's the sort of place the Buffalo Club in Santa Monica was meant to be. During the planning stages, principal owner Tony Yerkovich, one of the creators of "Miami Vice," was very close-mouthed about the project, releasing only a few tantalizing details from time to time. Most were to the effect that no expense would be spared, that the booths would be real leather and that Patrick Healy would oversee this kitchen as well as the one at Pasadena's Xiomara.

When the tony club finally opened in late 1994, the phone number was, of course, unlisted. And, even if you did get hold of the number, not just anybody could get a reservation. You had to proffer the right name. Or call in a favor from somebody with the right clout.

I managed to get in early on--it wasn't all that hard. The place was gorgeous and had the requisite buzz, and I thought the food was pretty terrific. But because of its exclusivity, I decided not to write about it. Now, however, the Buffalo Club is open to regular folk, too. I recently made a series of reservations under ordinary surnames and snagged a table every time.

To ensure a little mystery, the weathered working-class exterior of the old Olympic Club remains untouched. Its neon sign is still unlit. Only the line of sleek cars snaking up to the valet station in the dark gives away the club's location. But don't expect a complete open-door policy. You have to pass muster with a beefy guy in a long overcoat and baseball cap who checks your reservation.

Inside, at the end of the bar on the left, is a large silver basin in which a half-dozen bottles of high-end Champagne snuggle in ice. Cristal Rose, Dom Perignon or Perrier-Jouet are ready to pop their corks at a moment's notice. On the other side of a half-wall is the single dining room, just 80 seats. With its dark wood wainscoting, handsome brass lamps, antique beveled mirrors and luxurious leather chairs, the intimate supper club is as tastefully outfitted as a robber baron's private railway car. Linens are crisp and white, the flatware is heavy and candles are shielded by small fluted glass holders. In the dim light, the whole place takes on the atmosphere of one of Brassai's nighttime photos.

On three of my four visits, I begin to understand why the Buffalo Club has decided to go democratic. The place is half-empty. Still, everybody there is acting as if this is still the hottest place in town: the four women gaily celebrating a birthday, the two extravagantly turned-out young lovers holding hands across the table, the booth crammed with two guys and three blonds wearing almost identical skimpy black dresses.

The Buffalo Club's pretensions are irritating and yet--bottom line--the food makes the experience worthwhile. Healy has been mining the French vein for so long, and brilliantly, that it's fun to see what he does when he turns his attention to American food. His menu here is well-thought-out and immensely appealing.

"Taste this!" I want to shout to the room at large about a buffalo wing that's fried to a crisp brown and crackling with hot spices. But nobody would hear me: The music is cranked up too loud. I follow a bite of the buffalo wing with a taste of its refreshing tomato and red onion salad with Maytag blue cheese crumbled on top. There's also a fluffy sweet corn pancake laced with chunks of crab meat and a trio of plump, hand-pleated dumplings stuffed with lobster and shrimp set down in a smooth, spicy black bean sauce.

One night, six of us eat our way through much of the menu, from appetizers to desserts, and there's not a bad dish among them. Consider Healy's sumptuous chicken pot pie, replete with moist pieces of chicken cloaked in a graceful gravy studded with musky morel mushrooms. For big appetites, he's got a juicy two-inch-high pork chop marinated in apple juice and served with an applesauce-stuffed baked apple, dreamy cheddar-whipped potatoes and braised collards.

Every plate is garnished differently and deliciously. The trio of lamb chops gets garlicky Blue Lake beans and two little hush puppy cakes, all golden cornmeal crunch on the outside and custardy within. A beautifully cooked chicken paillard comes with a born-again succotash of sweet corn, sugar snap peas, pearl onions and slivers of artichoke heart. An excellent New York steak is accompanied by stuffed tomatoes and a pungent blue-cheese butter. Braised Maine lobster is perched on mashed potatoes punctuated with corn and garnished with a fabulously rich lobster butter and crinkly fresh morels. You couldn't ask for a better dish to accompany a big, opulent Chardonnay.

Missteps are few and slight. The roast duck steak could be more flavorful. And the venison loin, in a red wine reduction with bits of foie gras and chestnut puree, is terrific one night but lackluster another. Desserts, with the exception of a miniature lemon meringue pie and variations on the ice cream sundae, are not a particularly strong suit.

I even relish every one of the playful, savvy side dishes, from basic black-eyed peas and perfect leaf spinach to creamy macaroni and Vermont cheddar and those fluffy Yukons whipped with cheddar. But you've got to get the cornmeal-fried okra, too. And maybe the cheese-grit fries, thick and crispy bars of white cornmeal and cheese.

The club keeps late hours, praise be. From 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., you can slip in (that is, if you've had the foresight to call ahead) for a Caesar, some of those buffalo wings or the chicken pot pie. I'm a big fan of the grilled Black Forest ham and cheese sandwich on dark walnut bread. And the Texas ranch chili is as good as I've had anywhere--all beef and simmered in a complex blend of chile and spices.

A club with good food is about as rare as an old Indian head nickel. But now that the Buffalo Club is no longer restricted to the near-hip and famous, we can all go.

THE BUFFALO CLUB

CUISINE: American. AMBIENCE: Leather booths and chairs. BEST DISHES: Buffalo wings, shrimp and lobster dumplings, apple-cured pork chop, braised lobster. WINE PICK: Navarro Gewurztraminer, Anderson Valley, 1992. FACTS: 1520 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 450-8600. Closed Sunday, Monday and at lunch; open until 1 a.m.. Dinner for two, food only, $65 to $115. Corkage $20. Valet parking.

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