Babe Magnet

You know the drill. The winsome young woman with the clipboard is at the door of the latest trendy spot, checking off names on her reservation list and culling would-be guests. The place is new and it's jammed, which usually means you're in for a frustrating evening among the hordes looking for affirmation that they're part of the "in crowd." Worse, the food and service will probably disappoint.

Moomba, the latest tenant in the rambling restaurant/club space at 665 N. Robertson Blvd. that last housed Luna Park, is something different. Behind the buzz and the raw newness is a restaurant that takes its food as seriously as its celebrities and scene.

Of course the place has to look the part, too, and Moomba, which originated in New York's downtown scene, certainly does. Architect Hagy Belzberg (Patina, Nick & Stef's, the now-defunct Pagani) has given the formerly ramshackle space a makeover worthy of E's "Fashion Emergency" show. Upstairs is the main dining room with swank red velvet booths, a dauntingly thronged bar and a flatteringly dim light level created by yellowed parchment shades in oversized geometric forms. Downstairs, at street level, an outdoor patio wraps around the building on two sides. This is where you want to sit if you plan on spending the evening talking with your guests. Down some steps is the so-called VIP lounge, with velvet banquettes along the walls, its own bar and a plush billiard table--another place for a quieter meal.

The staff, for this kind of high-profile restaurant cum club, are amazingly nice, if sometimes ineffectual. One night I was seated in the VIP lounge to wait for my guests when they were already in the bar upstairs. But on another night, when a friend felt chilly, a petite female waiter didn't wait for reinforcements to arrive. She muscled the outdoor heater into place by herself.

All this is to say that Moomba is atypical of the genre. Instead of paying only lip service to the idea of serious dining, the restaurant is making an attempt to give guests something real. The menu is more interesting than most. It's not just a cheat sheet of the dishes restaurateurs have determined L.A. diners want. The ideas feel fresh.

More important, the menu is generally executed well despite how new--and overwhelmingly busy--the restaurant is. Credit for turning out food as good as this under these circumstances goes to co-executive chefs Frank Falcinelli and Donnie Masterton.

These guys are no amateurs. Falcinelli ran the original New York Moomba, which he and owner Jeff Gossett closed to concentrate on this venture--and spend more time in Los Angeles. Falcinelli brought in Masterton from Azie in San Francisco, where he was chef de cuisine at the south of Market restaurant noted for its sophisticated French-Asian cuisine. (The title chef de cuisine essentially means his responsibility was to execute the menu.)

At Moomba, the two chefs have assembled a crew up to the task of cooking fairly complicated food at a frenetic pace, although I had the best meal when the restaurant was fairly new and not yet turning so many tables. On an extremely busy night, the cooking didn't match the standard set by that first dinner. It could have just been an off night, which inevitably happens whether a restaurant is new or not. Another meal--a brunch at which my guests and I were the only diners--was mixed.

Some of the surprises on the menu include a formidable foie gras au torchon, in which the whole fattened duck liver is rolled in a torchon, or towel, and gently poached to the point that it's demi-cuit, or half-cooked, to a gorgeous rosy color. Then it's chilled and cut in thick slices. It's a particularly generous portion, two velvety slabs served with warm toast and roasted strawberries, a touch that doesn't quite work.

At the start of corn season, snowy day-boat scallops are seared and served with chanterelle mushrooms in a pretty sweet corn and chive ragout. The best starter is the tender short rib and pecorino romano ravioli with delicious bitter greens. I also liked the satiny jasmine tea-smoked salmon. Had it been cut a tad thinner, it would have been easier to appreciate its delicately smoky taste.

The Amish chicken, from Pennsylvania Amish country, is beautifully moist and flavorful, perched on Yukon gold mashed potatoes and basted with a foie gras and giblet sauce. This is as good as chicken gets in a restaurant. The excellent dry-aged New York steak au poivre packs pepper all right, but the flavor of the steak can stand up to it. Soft-shell crabs, a special, come cloaked in a golden batter as light as tempura, ornamented with fried sage leaves and capers. And if you love lamb, you can't go wrong with the herb-roasted rack of lamb, which comes with German butterball potatoes and a charred onion salad. It's a familiar dish with a few twists that should please even the most conservative eater.

Less enticing is the hickory-grilled salmon with Moroccan barbecue sauce. The salmon was beautifully cooked, but the sweet barbecue sauce is not a good match. Couscous with preserved lemon, however, is.

For dessert, the "cookie jar" is a must, a stack of warm, inch-thick chocolate chip cookies and fudgy brownies flanked by scoops of vanilla bean and chocolate ice cream. Pastry chef Jennifer Voss also turns out a rum raisin rice pudding with an adorable cookie spoon. Her cr 1/8me brlee is suitably sumptuous, and her blueberry crisp, served warm with vanilla ice cream, is homey and comforting.

The patio is particularly pleasant for weekend brunch (they also do weekday lunch). On a Sunday morning, we sat outside on a shady banquette fitted into a corner of the front patio. Our waiter told us the agua fresca was jet-fresh pineapple. We went for it. A little later he was back, deflated. It seemed the pineapple was having a little jet-lag. However, there was a pretty iced tea with berries floating in it and a platter of Middle Eastern-inspired mezze that included golden falafal ovals, a delicious hummus and tabbouleh. For fans of garnished Caesar, there's one with strips of grilled tuna and house-cured anchovies. But both the eggs Benedict and huevos rancheros are on the heavy side.

As we leave one night, the babes congregate in the parking lot, so many we idly wonder if they've been bused in for the occasion. Where do they all come from? Smoothing their hair, checking their cleavage and their hemlines, tottering on their Manolos and Jimmy Choos toward the restaurant and club. I just hope the guys in there are worthy. And that the women remember to eat.

*

AMBIENCE: Hyper-trendy restaurant and club that has wraparound outdoor patio and VIP lounge. SERVICE: Eager to please, if sometimes confused. BEST DISHES: Foie gras torchon, day-boat scallops in chive and corn ragout, short rib and pecorino romano ravioli, Amish chicken, dry-aged New York steak au poivre, "cookie jar," blueberry crisp. Dinner appetizers, $8 to $16; main courses, $22 to $32. WINE PICKS: 1999 Alois Lageder Pinot Grigio, Italy; 1997 Villa de Capezzana Carmignano, Tuscany. Corkage, $25. FACTS:Open for dinner seven days a week, lunch Monday through Friday. Valet parking.

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.

Moomba

665 N. Robertson Blvd.

West Hollywood

(310) 652-6364

Cuisine: Contemporary American

Rating: **

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