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Les Deux Cafes’Inside Story

“Where the hell is it?” grumbles a producer type as he sits in his Jag, peeling off five $1 bills for the parking attendant. At Hollywood’s hippest hard-to-find spot, Les Deux Cafes, no sign announces the restaurant and even movie moguls have to park their own cars.

The entrance to this newly reopened French country restaurant is a metal gate in a corner of a parking lot on a nondescript block of Las Palmas Avenue just south of Hollywood Boulevard. Past the herb garden, a path leads to a wondrously civilized outdoor dining space. In this Provenal-inspired retreat planted with olive trees, lavender, sage and star jasmine, tables and chairs are set beneath the stars. A fountain reflects the moon and wispy clouds overhead.

Until recently, that was all there was to Les Deux Cafes. In 1996, owner Michele Lamy had a decrepit 1904 Arts and Crafts bungalow moved onto the front lot. It sat untouched for almost a year and, once renovation began, the garden dining area was closed down. Work dragged on for months, but the result is remarkable for its sense of style and gracious ambience.

A former fashion designer-turned-restaurateur, the French-born Lamy has eccentric and wonderful taste. With designer Paul Fortune, she has managed to pull off Les Deux Cafes’ handsome new look beautifully. The outdoor bar and dining area now feature a tiled fireplace and roll-down plastic walls for inclement weather. In the dining room, wood wainscoting the color of dark honey encircles the walls. The kitchen is set off by a black wood grid in the Charles Rennie Mackintosh vein. Tables are tucked into corners, some partitioned for more privacy. The lighting is smart and low-key. But Les Deux Cafes’ success is not just about the walls and the lighting. Lamy knows how to create a vibrant and alluring atmosphere. Since she knows practically everybody who comes through the door, the restaurant has the feel of a private club. The minute you walk in, you sense you’re somewhere special. At 8, it is half-full; by 9, there’s a crush at the door. Because this is the kind of place where you expect to see European cinematographers, aspiring actors and East Coast intellectuals trying their hand at a screenplay, I love to sit with a view of the door and watch people arrive.

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If Les Deux Cafes has a drawback, it’s the food. I’ve had some delicious fare here, but not always, and dishes are wildly overpriced. Which is frustrating because I think chef David Wynns’ ideas are right on target. I frequently see him at the farmers’ market buying what’s in season. It’s the kitchen’s execution that often leaves something to be desired.

For instance, the plate of olives, chilled potato rounds and broccoli and cauliflower florets that’s offered at the beginning of a meal here sometimes tastes of the refrigerator. But the bread is good, and butter is cut from a big round on display in the wine room. Two soups--a lovely puree of artichoke, a savory duck broth with shreds of confit and diced winter vegetables--are simple and satisfying.

I also like the warm pillows of oyster in cream and Champagne, and white asparagus in a silky sabayon sauce. A comforting starter for sharing is raclette--white potatoes under a molten coverlet of cheese, with a little cream swirled at the bottom of the dish. Pumpkin ravioli with hazelnuts, though, is marred by a filling that resembles the texture of baby food. And quenelles, fish dumplings that should be light as air, are decidedly earthbound.

One night, I’m thrilled by my skate, classically prepared in brown butter and capers. On another occasion, I’m disappointed with a butterflied fillet of salmon in creme fra 5/8che that’s flawed by salty sorrel sauce.

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At $30, roast chicken with black truffles under the skin doesn’t boast enough good truffles to make it worth your while. The moist, sliced chicken breast cooked in cream and tarragon is a much better choice. I’m impressed that the chef serves rabbit in a country stew with artichokes and good tomatoes; but given the way rabbit is raised in this country, it lacksflavor. What is very tasty is the roast loin of lamb served in its juices with a medley of spring vegetables. There’s also a very nice, deliciously cara-melized veal shank and beautifully cooked veal sweetbreads; both, however, come in a reduction that has the consistency of blackstrap molasses.

Desserts are a lovely surprise. There’s a gorgeous ruby-red strawberry tart, a warm apple galette on buttery puff pastry and a textbook creme brulee scented with rose geraniums. Plus, there’s a warm chocolate cake that’s molten at its heart and served with homemade ice cream and mocha sauce.

Les Deux Cafes is unique when it comes to service. When you call the restaurant, the phone can sometimes ring endlessly. Other times, you’ll get Lamy’s husky “ ‘allo?” and have to ask if you have indeed reached Les Deux Cafes. Once you show up, Lamy is right there to greet you, assessing with laser-like precision where she should seat you. She may not notice--or care--that you’ve been waiting more than a half-hour for dessert, but she pays attention to whom you’re with and what you’re wearing. The wait staff is all independent spirits who bring you your menus, food and wine at their own inscrutable pace. Your steak is overcooked? Or your prawns are mealy and inedible? You may or may not get an apology. One thing you definitely won’t receive is the offer to prepare you something else instead. On the other hand, nobody rushes your meal to turn the tables faster.

Les Deux Cafes’ wine list has greatly improved. Instead of off vintages and obscure producers, you can now find Chave’s St. Joseph by the glass or the Chateauneuf-du-Pape blend Red Handed from Sine Qua Non, the winery of Campanile’s Manfred Krankl and his wife, Elaine. Before, I used to look in vain for something interesting; now there are several tempting choices.

I could wish Les Deux Cafes’ prices were lower and the cooking more consistent, but the bottom line is: Les Deux Cafes has a special raffish allure, one that stands out in a world of cookie-cutter restaurant concepts. When I’m dining here on my own dime, I’ll cope by sharing a course or two and leave plenty of room for dessert and another bottle of wine.

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LES DEUX CAFES

CUISINE: Country French. AMBIENCE: Arts and Crafts bungalow with patio garden, outdoor bar area and, in back, another bar. BEST DISHES: warm oysters, raclette, artichoke puree soup, skate, chicken breast, roast lamb loin, strawberry tart. WINE PICKS: 1996 J.L. Chave St. Joseph, Rhone Valley; FACTS: 1638 N. Las Palmas Ave., Hollywood; (213) 465-0509. Dinner Monday through Saturday. Starters, $8 to $60. Main courses, $24 to $34. Corkage $10. Fee parking in guarded lot.

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