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A LOVELY PLACE SETTING

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BEL-AIR IS A KIND OF SHANGRI-LA WHERE most of us couldn’t afford to live unless we won the lottery. But you could go there for dinner and, trust me, an evening at the Bel-Air Hotel is as restorative as a weekend away. It begins the moment you turn onto Stone Canyon Road from Sunset Boulevard and roll past Mediterranean-style villas along an avenue lined with massive old trees.

Plan to arrive at twilight, with enough time before your reservation to stroll around the grounds, over the bridge and along the path through a shady grove of Australian tree ferns, down to the pond (well, they call it a lake) where swans preen.

If you fancy a before-dinner drink, the Bel-Air has a swell lounge, one of the best-kept secrets in town. It has invitingly deep armchairs and plump sofas. The fireplace is always lit, and the bartender really knows how to make a drink.

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Yet as inviting as the lounge is, the Bel-Air’s vast outdoor terrace--featuring a massive pergola supported by wide-set pillars and the branches of a gnarled old bougainvillea weaving in and out of the trellising--is what I love best. Tables are spaced far enough apart for privacy, especially if you get one in an alcove edging the garden. The scene is hushed and dark, fragrant with flowering plants, and effusively romantic. It is truly one of the great dining venues in Los Angeles.

Unfortunately, the food isn’t quite as inspiring as the setting. It’s too much a hotel restaurant. Longtime chef Gary Clauson left not long ago for medical reasons and has been replaced by Thomas Hanson. I went back recently to check on any changes, and to take guests I knew would appreciate the setting. Although I called several days ahead and called back twice more, I couldn’t get a table on the terrace. We would have to eat in the formal dining room, which I’ve always found to be claustrophobic.

I come across my friends wandering in the garden, dazed by its luxuriance. The surprise is how welcoming the dining room seems now that floor-to-ceiling windows open out onto the garden. The balmy air sweeps away the room’s pretensions and formality. The guests are a mix of young couples enjoying a romantic evening, others reliving a special moment and regular patrons. The waiters, veterans all, are in top form, anticipating every need.

On this first visit, the meal is a model of consistency. It’s always a good sign when bread is excellent, as it is here: warm, crusty rolls to be spread with cool, unsalted butter; cheese sticks and a tweedy, darkly flecked olive bread.

The menu doesn’t falter, with a classic terrine de foie gras served in a fat triangle and set off by lashings of dark, tarry balsamic vinegar, diced pears and buttery toasted brioche. Ahi tartare is a tall cylinder of top-quality fish so deftly dressed that the tuna taste comes soaring through. There’s also a handsome endive salad, the leaves forming a tepee bound together with a blade of chive: Inside are ribbons of lettuce and tomato. So far, very good.

It’s nice to see roast chicken with polenta on a hotel menu because it’s something that might appeal to a jet-lagged traveler. A trilogy of birds, which includes sliced duck breast and quail, is fussily presented, and in the end, not that interesting. Beef filet ordered medium rare comes out closer to medium. We are now in the realm of typical hotel restaurant cuisine, but we’re having far too nice a time to mind.

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A few weeks later, Hanson has introduced his own menu. This time, we get a table on the terrace and can appreciate the subtle remodeling. The lighting is beautiful. Heat lamps are mounted high. And pleated shades, which can be adjusted to mask the light at lunch, are strung overhead.

“If this place had great food, it would be killer,” one of my guests remarks. And it’s true. It’s got all the bells and whistles of high-end cuisine: exotic ingredients, elaborate presentation, fine china. But except for a few dishes, the food is not that compelling. Take the rabbit. Out comes what looks like a chocolate bunny holding a tray, with an espresso cup set at its feet. Is this metal sculpture a whimsical espresso machine? No, it’s an amusing palate teaser. The “espresso” is really a delicious cream-laden asparagus bisque, and the tray holds a miniature potato galette topped with smoked salmon and caviar. I realize later that these hors d’oeuvres are buying time, because the food comes out very slowly.

One of us had also ordered asparagus bisque, which comes in an odd metal bowl with an ungainly handle and miniature ham and cheese sandwiches. Only a real trencherman could polish off the rich and generous soup and the sandwiches, and move on to other courses.

Other first courses include a fragile and delicious lobster and sweet corn custard, and a minuscule piece of beautifully cooked foie gras. Seared on the outside, melting within, the foie gras is paired with blackberries and a slice of ripe peach. The best is the house-smoked salmon, a plate covered with the mild pale-coral salmon. A tier of plates holds the garnishes--chopped egg whites, sweet red onions, parsley, sour cream and some extremely salty lumpfish caviar (to be avoided)--and blinis. But they’re sweet!

The best main courses include the thick, flavorful veal chop, John Dory with sweet peas and wilted pea shoots, and fat seared scallops with wild mushrooms and cream. I also like the filet of beef stuffed with Stilton cheese and accompanied by horseradish whipped mashed potatoes. The pickled walnut garnish, though, is very much an acquired taste. My duck breast is redolent of honey and cumin, two flavors that are magical with duck, but the meat itself is sadly overcooked, as dry as sawdust.

Desserts are among the most expensive in town, but they don’t deliver enough. French doughnuts are heavy doughnut holes in a stemmed glass, and they don’t need three sticky sweet “fondues.” Banana financiere is done in by a garnish of what is effectively banana jerky. And molten soft chocolate cake tastes more like steamed pudding. Pass them all up in favor of the Grand Marnier souffle, which rises magnificently above its porcelain dish, under a snowfall of powdered sugar.

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You’d have to be a real curmudgeon not to enjoy yourself at the Bel-Air--despite being slightly disappointed by the cooking. Of course, the service, as always, is superior. The Bel-Air is one of those places with a captain, a sommelier and waiters who have been there forever and know the regulars by name. And valet parking is free.

As we leave one night, in the deep shadow of a magnificent tree, I notice a couple sitting on the bench in the dark, their arms wrapped around each other. Food isn’t everything.

Bel-Air Hotel

701 Stone Canyon Road,

Los Angeles,

(310) 472-1211

cuisine: Contemporary American

rating: **

*

AMBIENCE: Splendid outdoor terrace and restaurant in a garden setting. SERVICE: Top notch. BEST DISHES: House-smoked salmon, terrine of foie gras, lobster corn custard, filet of beef with Stilton, John Dory with pea shoots, roast chicken with polenta, Grand Marnier souffle. Appetizers, $8 to $110. Main courses, $22 to $37. Corkage, $25. WINE PICKS: 1993 Tement Sauvignon Blanc, Austria; 1994 Torre Muga Rioja, Spain. FACTS: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Complimentary valet parking (but be sure to tip).

*

Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.

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