The shine’s back on Le Dome

Times Staff Writer

Le Dome, the famous rocker and music industry haunt on Sunset Strip, was seriously in danger of going the way of the dodo bird and Chasen’s when longtime owner Eddie Kerkhofs found new partners -- Ronald Tutor and David Bergstein -- with the cash for a radical makeover. If ever there was a fashion emergency this was it. The once-glamorous venue was looking decidedly dowdy and dispirited. Even the TV executives and music moguls legendary for hitting on anything that moved seemed in short supply. The high rollers? Moved on. Ed McMahon was about as heated as the star sighting got.

Enter design maven Dodd Mitchell, who has had a hand in virtually every recent trendy newcomer from Dolce Enoteca and Chi to the abruptly shuttered Avenue. Does this guy ever sleep? With more than $2 million to spend, Mitchell re-envisioned Le Dome with ziggurat motifs, Gothic windows trussed in metal and flames erupting from a horizontal slot of flat-screen TV “fireplace.” It’s so edgy, it’s almost pervy.

It’s difficult to imagine Zsa Zsa in her ermines sweeping through the new Le Dome’s bold front door, now faced in smooth half-logs the color of bitter chocolate. This is another, more casual time. Half of today’s Le Dome crowd is composed of scruffy comedians and actors in beanies and skinny shirts. But the old-timers are here, too -- many dressed as if it’s still the ongoing party it was when Le Dome opened in 1977, with silk handkerchiefs carefully tucked into pockets, hand-polished loafers and old-world tailoring. It’s a culture clash on Sunset Boulevard.


Each group has its own territory. When Mickey Rourke in tough-guy leathers and a knit cap pulled down to his brows swaggers in, he’s seated on the terrace. The Kirk Douglases and Don Rickleses are dining together at a secluded table in the back. The opulent leather booths are discreetly spaced for privacy.

If anything, it’s the bar that seems underpopulated these days, with only a handful of die-hards enjoying the honey-colored marble top, lighted from underneath so it casts a golden, and very flattering, glow on anybody seated there.

The restaurant is positively basking in its new look. But is the food any better? Well, yes and no. Sam Marvin, 39, last seen in these parts a decade ago as chef and owner of the innovative Modada on Melrose Avenue, is executive chef. (He was last at Piero’s in Las Vegas, where he was the chef.) He has almost completely retooled the menu, leaving only a handful of stalwart dishes from the past, each with the notation “1977” to indicate it’s a Le Dome classic. He’s chosen well: A couple of these older items are among the best dishes on the menu.

Le Dome’s food is updated Continental. That means plenty of ingredients that signal luxury -- caviar, foie gras, lobster, truffles -- and enough requisite bells and whistles in the presentation to justify the high tariffs. Everything here is putting on the Ritz.

Owner Kerkhofs is Belgian and mussels Belgian style are everything they should be. Rope-grown off the coast of Santa Barbara, they’re soft and plump, bathed in a briny broth laced with shallots and perfumed with opal basil oil. Right now stone crab claws from Florida are a special, two as an appetizer, four as a main course. The claws are huge, filled with dense, sweet crabmeat. Forget the foie gras. This is the most sumptuous first course on the menu.

I doubt French chef Marc Meneau would be flattered to have his name associated with Le Dome’s foie gras au torchon. The portion is mingy: tiny slices of beige foie gras set on round pieces of toast. It doesn’t even faintly resemble Meneau’s extraordinary foie gras. The quality of the caviar on top of the pretty bluefin tuna carpaccio isn’t the best either. It tastes muddy and overly salty.


Marvin seems to be still tinkering with the menu, though. Tandoori chicken legs or thighs has morphed into whole Cornish game hen, for example, and “pheasant under glass” was different every time I tried it. I wish I could say, though, that each meal I’ve had at Le Dome has been better than the last. The progress isn’t that evident. I think Marvin’s cooking was better at his own place when he wasn’t trying for such a grand effect.

The ladies who lunch naturally gravitate to the salads. There’s even a “water” salad made from lettuces and greens that have not had any actual contact with dirt, i.e., they’re hydroponically grown, the waiter explains. It’s pretty enough, but barely there, though the mint ricotta dressing helps out.

The more baroque creations tend to self-implode with a cascade of competing flavors. The chef piles so much richness upon richness, there can’t be a shred of doubt we’re participating in the Robin Leach lifestyle. If the combination of asparagus, chilly leek terrine, artichokes and the occasional nugget of lobster doused in an overbearing truffle oil vinaigrette sounds exquisitely sophisticated to your ear, then the Alexis Star is the salad for you. I much prefer the Le Dome salad, a classic of iceberg lettuce, hearts of palm, avocado and very cold tomato wedges with big pieces of shrimp in an understated dressing.

A handful of the main courses pass muster. A double veal chop special, stuffed with prosciutto and provolone, is positively regal, the meat caramelized on the outside, pink and juicy inside. The latest version of the tandoori “chicken” is the most successful so far. Pleasantly seasoned with Indian spices, a whole Cornish game hen is stuffed with round peas that tumble out like buckshot when you cut into it.

If you just want a grilled steak, the kitchen can cook a New York cut with a fine char. And if you want to spring $50 for a lobster, they do a good job. It’s not overcooked and comes with the classic drawn butter. Other things are overcooked, though. A baseball cut of excellent Atlantic swordfish ordered one night was completely dried out. (And it took a culinary miracle to overcook such a thick cut.)

The wine list is a compendium of mostly California labels with some pricey French and Italian selections. Kerkhofs has a fondness for Bordeaux and often hosts lavish wine dinners at Le Dome. But how can you trust a place that hasn’t yet corrected the error in a listing for a $950 bottle? That would be the 1985 Gaya [sic] Barbaresco San Lorenzo from one of the most famous winemakers in the world, Angelo Gaja.


As for desserts, stick with Le Dome’s signature harlequin souffle. At least you’ll have some fun with the pomp of serving this half-vanilla, half-chocolate souffle with Gran Marnier sauce. Or if you must have more chocolate, go with the warm chocolate cake, although it’s by no means a great example of the genre.

Despite the kitchen’s behind-the-scenes effort, even if the food was terrific, which it is not, in the end, it is merely the backdrop to the evening, which is more about cosseting and a sense of tribe than about a glorious eating experience. That’s no different than it was before. Underneath its hip new gloss, Le Dome is ... incorrigibly Le Dome. Whether they’ve seen you before or not, Kerkhofs and his lieutenant welcome everyone with open arms, and are happy to give an impromptu tour of the changes. It is an institution, and we don’t have many.


Le Dome

Rating:* 1/2

Location: 8720 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 659-6919.

Ambience: The Sunset Strip’s grande dame has been given a glam makeover with luxe leather booths, an updated bar and a dining room with a video fireplace. The outdoor terrace, though, is the place to be.

Service: Professional and highly attentive.

Price: Dinner appetizers, $11 to $23 (caviar is $125); main courses, $25 to $40; desserts, $10 to $14; iron chef tasting, $55 for three dishes; lunch appetizers, $9 to $25; sandwiches, $14 to $18; main courses, $15 to $25; spa lunch, $22 for two dishes.

Best dishes: Mussels Belgian style, Colorado lamb chop, Le Dome salad, bluefin carpaccio, diver scallops, lobster, tandoori Cornish hen, double veal chop.

Wine list: Mostly uninspired California selections along with high-priced French and Italian wines. Corkage, $20.


Best table: One of the opulent leather booths.

Details: Open for lunch Monday through Friday, 12 to 3 p.m. Dinner Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6:30 to 11:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. Full bar. Valet parking, $5

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.