A Better L'Orangerie

L'Orangerie has always been the most rigorously French of Los Angeles' restaurants, a 23-year-old institution as admired for its sumptuous old-fashioned decor as for its haute cuisine. Though the dress policy no longer dictates a tie for men, L'Orangerie may be the last bastion of traditional "fine dining" in a city determined to be comfortable and casual at all times.

The room, with its candlelight and lavish flowers, has always done its glamorous best to make any occasion feel special. The food, though, has had its near-great and disappointing moments over the years. Mention L'Orangerie and many dedicated restaurant-goers will admit they haven't eaten there in years. I suspect it's because the restaurant has always been so tightly wound. Service tended to be awkward and fussy, and the cuisine wasn't always impressive enough to override its stifling effect.

These days, however, L'Orangerie is making a turnaround. The room feels alive and warm, and the service, under manager Ignace Lecleir, is what it should have been all along. On recent visits, everything runs smoothly. The restaurant even has a slick new Web site, where you can view the menu and the wine list.

More important, 31-year-old Ludovic Lefebvre, chef for the past four years, is coming into his own. The French native, who apprenticed with Marc Meneau at L'Esperance in Burgundy and worked with Pierre Gagnaire in St. Etienne and Alain Passard at L'Arpege in Paris, was nominated for the Rising Star award from the James Beard Foundation this year. Lefebvre is an intellectual cook, in tune with the latest developments in French haute cuisine, fascinated by new techniques and ardent about the exotic--whether it's an unusual fish or a spice that's just come into fashion.

His new menu, called "On the Spice Route," is his best yet. On an evening when a friend and I asked the chef to create a special menu for us, it included some of the dishes from this $95 prix fixe menu. The dish that stood out for me was an extraordinary duck breast encrusted with spices.

On a later visit, my guests and I opt for the entire eight-course spice menu. The first two courses are surprising--and wonderful. First comes shredded king crab and peeky toe crab suspended in a fragile gelatin infused with star anise and garnished with a smooth avocado bavarois. Then a remarkable roasted rock lobster with Ceylon cinnamon. Buttery pasta-- spaghettini broken and cooked in broth like Catalan fideus--sits beneath the single curl of rock lobster. The pasta has soaked up the lobster essence and a dose of cinnamon so penetrating it's heart-stopping. This is exciting cooking.

The next course is seared ahi tuna marinated in vanilla with essence of red beet and black cardamom. It's definitely a love-it-or-leave-it proposition. In our case, the combination of the bland, almost raw, tuna with an incredibly strong vanilla taste is perplexing. An entire vanilla bean is balanced on top of the tuna like a tightrope walker's pole. While I love the blood-dark essence of beet, the beet salad is unappetizingly slippery. It's a case of going too far to astonish. Not many chefs would even take the risk, however, which is exactly what I like about Lefebvre.

Unfortunately, on this visit, the duck breast I loved so much the first time around has gone from extraordinary to inedible. After two bites, my friend puts down her fork. The sweet spices, especially the mace, are so overwhelmingly potent, they numb the tongue. This is not the same dish I had before. I suspect it's because the chef can't monitor the dishes as closely on nights like this one, when it's busier. But next comes seared filet of beef poached in red wine infused with star anise, green cardamom and Indonesian "long pepper." The filet is beautifully tender and here, the mix of sweet and hot spices intoxicating.

On another evening, we try beef tenderloin cooked with pistachio paste in a dark roasted coffee chocolate sauce. Nobody at the table can tolerate the extreme bitterness of the sauce, which tastes something like a Oaxacan mole squared. That same night the host persuades us to try his favorite dish, the roasted whole organic chicken for two. When it's ready, the server shows off an entire chicken sitting on bread dough and encased in an overturned Pyrex dish. The bird is scattered with handfuls of threebe, a wild herb from Greece. It looks beautiful, but the dish is so overdosed with the potent herb that the effect is almost medicinal.

Owners Virginie and Gerard Ferry seem to be staying more in the background these days, letting the new manager direct the dining room. Lecleir brings a warmer, more personal touch that was sorely needed. He's comfortable with people and knows how to coddle without going over the top.

Another big change is in the wine service, previously a L'Orangerie weak point. Now dozens of sparkling Riedel wineglasses are set out on the bar. It may seem inconsequential, but when you're drinking a $200 wine from an ordinary glass, the experience isn't all it could be.

Lecleir is also the sommelier, and he is enthusiastic about opening up L'Orangerie's mostly French and California list to wines from Italy, Australia, Spain, Chile and New Zealand. Since his arrival, it's been easier to find something interesting and more or less affordable on the list.

The restaurant now has an impressive dessert chef, Donna Claxton, who has been there a year. Her individual strawberry tart, accompanied by a sweet-tart balsamic ice cream is brilliant. I've also enjoyed her fresh fruit glazed with hibiscus jelly and a subtly sweet white cheese sorbet. The sorbet is fabulous, perfect little crystals of ice, and tastes as if it were made on the spot. She also makes a divine coconut tapioca soup fragrant with lemon grass, served with an irresistible confit of pineapple sorbet laced with mace.

L'Orangerie, at long last, is bent on reinventing itself. If the kitchen can become more consistent even as it continues to take risks, this West Hollywood classic may succeed in putting some excitement back into French dining in Los Angeles. <

L'Orangerie

903 N. La Cienega Blvd.

Los Angeles

(310) 652-9770

Cuisine: California

Rating: ** 1/2

*

AMBIENCE: Stately, classic French dining room with candlelight, banquettes and towering flower arrangements. SERVICE: Professional teamwork. BEST DISHES: Roasted rock lobster with cinnamon; filet of beef in red wine infused with star anise, green cardamom and "long pepper"; strawberry tart; lemon grass-coconut tapioca soup. PRICES: Appetizers, $18 to $150. Main courses, $32 to $48. Eight-course spice route menu, $95. Four-course vegetarian menu, $58. Corkage, $25. WINE PICKS: 1999 Lucien et Andre Brunel Les Cailloux Chateauneuf-du-Pape blanc, Rhone Valley; 1997 Domaine Santa Duc Gigondas, Rhone Valley. FACTS: Dinner Tuesday through Sunday. 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.

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