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At the Getty, another transporting experience

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Times Staff Writer

IS there a restaurant in all of Los Angeles with a view as breathtaking as the Restaurant at the Getty Center? On a clear, wind-swept day, friends and I could almost make out the bushes on Catalina Island and the individual waves along the coastline. Looking toward downtown, we reveled in an eagle’s-eye view of the L.A. cityscape of incredible detail.

Five years old now, the restaurant has become an indelible part of the Getty experience. Too isolated to persuade diners to make the trek up the hill just to dine, the restaurant has become a welcome bonus, something to look forward to after a trek through the galleries and the gardens. Though the opening chef is no longer there, the restaurant has kept its California-Mediterranean style and ambitious menu. This is no dressed-up cafeteria, but a serious restaurant.

The L-shaped dining room, which seats 150, is faced in floor-to-ceiling windows with a wraparound deck outside. When needed, semi-transparent blinds lower to screen the direct glare of the sun. The decor is as spare as Richard Meier’s architecture, with an end-cut hardwood floor that mimics the pockmarked travertine surfaces outside.

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A triptych mural by Alexis Smith on the theme of taste is embellished with terracotta plates inscribed with bland descriptors for food -- “tasteful,” “harmonious,” etc. But it may also be meant as a comment on the museum-going experience, or at least what it used to be when society ladies in hats were calling the shots.

Fortunately, the food on the plates at the Getty is better than those adjectives would indicate. I’d add “interesting” and “unexpected” to the roster. When one of my guests seemed hesitant about ordering bacon-wrapped halibut, the waiter reassured her in the nicest possible way, “I think you’ll be surprised. The food is really very good.”

In other words, the Getty’s restaurant isn’t the typical museum restaurant dreck.

Sunday on the hill

Brunch may be the best meal here. Catching up on the latest exhibit, and then adjourning to the restaurant is a wonderful way to spend a Sunday. There’s a full bar, so you have the option of ordering a sprightly mimosa or something called a wasabi bloody mary. Tall and iced, it packs a sharp blast of heat.

I took the breakfast route with French toast cut into rounds, fried to a yellow-gold, stacked and smeared with vanilla-bean-freckled pastry cream. If you felt like eggs, you could have an applewood-smoked bacon omelet. Startling yellow and expertly made (just be sure to ask for it cooked soft), it is filled with thinly sliced new potatoes, Fontina and smoky bacon. A small salad of edible flowers and herbs came on the side.

On a chilly day, a green lentil and andouille sausage soup sounded agreeable, and it was. That morning there was also a pretty roasted baby beet and arugula salad made with raspberry pink-striped Chioggia beets in a walnut citrus emulsion. It’s sophisticated fare, well-executed.

My favorite dish that day was seared ahi tuna salad. A block of rare seared tuna sat on baby spinach leaves in the middle of the plate surrounded by Nicoise olives, tiny new potatoes and more, with a crock of sauce gribiche on the side piquant with cornichons and capers. The other standout that morning was smoked prawns heady with spicy paprika. The marvelous citrus risotto with the meaty prawns was enriched with mascarpone and bits of pink grapefruit the size of grains of rice.

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Like the prawns, some brunch dishes may be drafted from that week’s lunch menu. But my one experience at lunch this time out was spotty, as if the food came from an entirely different kitchen. There was a fine seasonal version of Cobb salad made with Braeburn apples, Maytag blue cheese, pecans and dried cranberries in creamy cider vinaigrette. But after that, our table struck out. Three of the dishes were practically inedible.

Dungeness crab cakes were sodden with oil, barely warm, and tasted as if they’d been made much earlier in the day. Maybe they were, because the food came out disconcertingly fast. The two sandwiches we ordered were simply bad ideas. Beef short rib sandwich was served open-faced, on focaccia topped with mashed potatoes and gravy before the short ribs were added -- and a garnish of mysteriously shriveled whole cherry tomatoes and limp “tempura” onion rings. The short ribs themselves were tender and beefy though. Maine lobster “melt” left me longing for a lobster club. Rubbery lobster, rubbery Gruyere and spongy Portobello mushroom do not a great sandwich make. But the heap of house-made potato chips disappeared quickly enough.

Dinner, which is served only on Friday and Saturday nights when the museum is open until 9 p.m., is a civilized affair. Though at this time of the year you don’t get the benefit of the view, the room looked welcoming. Instead of the heirloom roses at lunch, tables are set with candles in travertine holders made from the same stone as the building. The mossy green of the mohair upholstery adds the sole note of color. The room seems to be floating in the night with a cargo of art lovers from all over the world. All around, you can hear people discussing the Dorothea Lange show or the acquisition policy of the museum.

Pristine start

We chose a Sauvignon Blanc from the restaurant’s modest wine list to accompany iced platters of delicious Cape Neddick oysters. Skip the cocktail sauce or the vodka mignonette: These oysters don’t need doctoring. That night there was a lovely grilled pear salad with wild watercress and Maytag blue cheese, only the spiced and very sweet almond brittle seemed out of place. House-cured salmon suffered from stiff, virtually cold buckwheat blini that must have been made hours before, while fibrous seared Hudson Valley foie gras had oozed a puddle of yellow fat. It’s tricky getting the right temperature.

I did enjoy the fluffy ricotta gnocchi topped with a shaving of smooth, salty ricotta salata. Soft pillows of fennel-dusted diver scallops, though, were charred on the outside and just a bit too rare on the inside, but I loved the creamy Yukon potatoes. All of the sides are interesting and well thought out by executive chef Helene Kennan and chef Terri Buzzard. Filet of beef, for example, is not only a flavorful piece of prime beef, but comes with a beautiful saute of red and green chard. And Texas wild boar chops are set off by a lush potato gratin and baby broccoli.

Though I was disappointed to see that pastry chef Merilee Atkinson had moved on, Megan Shultz is continuing in the same, homey vein with desserts like a tender lemon flan with passion fruit poundcake or spicy ginger cake with cranberry relish. She makes a wonderful warm citrus rice pudding with grapefruit sorbet melting into it, and serves it with lemon drop cookies. And who wouldn’t love to have a whole baked caramel apple with streusel stuffing, a pert pastry hat and a ball of brown sugar ice cream?

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The Restaurant at the Getty Center occasionally wobbles, but with that view, and food you’d really like to eat, it’s an unexpected perk to the museum experience and an integral part of the L.A. dining scene.

*

The Restaurant at the Getty Center

Rating: **

Location: Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles; (310) 440-6810.

Ambience: Sleek contemporary museum restaurant with all the accouterments of fine dining, plus a drop-dead view of the ocean and the city spread out below.

Service: Professional and engaging.

Price: Lunch appetizers, $7 to $12; entrees, $15 to $19; desserts, $5 to $7. Dinner entrees, $20 to $32.

Best dishes: (menu changes weekly) Roasted baby beets and arugula, Cobb salad, smoked paprika spiced prawns, applewood-smoked bacon omelet, seared ahi tuna salad, prime beef filet, lemon flan, baked caramel apple, warm citrus rice pudding.

Wine list: Predominantly Californian and predictable. Corkage is not allowed.

Best table: On a warm day, one on the outside terrace.

Details: Open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Friday and Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Reservations essential. Full bar. Parking $5; parking reservation required weekdays before 4 p.m. Reservations can also be made at www.getty.edu.

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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