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Civilized dining thrives under young chef’s eye

Times Staff Writer

Alex SCRIMGEOUR, the young British chef behind Alex, might as well sport a bumper sticker, it’s so clear he’d rather be cooking luxe. At the handsome Melrose Avenue restaurant one night recently, the waiter wistfully mentioned that they happened to have black truffles and the chef could use them in a dish if we liked. These must have been the very last of a not-so-brilliant season, but we went for it. Would he make them with scrambled eggs? He would. Back came a small portion each of buttery, loose eggs. They were delicious enough on their own, but when he shaved truffles on top and tucked more inside, the warmth and butter brought out every nuance of the fabulous fungus.

When Scrimgeour opened Alex in early 2002, he was barely 30. But this chef, who trained at the Cordon Bleu in London and Paris and spent three years as executive chef at Saddle Peak Lodge, joined a handful of other thirtysomething chefs intent on reviving fine dining in L.A.

The gang included David Myers of Sona, Josiah Citrin of Melisse and Josie LeBalch of Josie Restaurant. Bastide’s Alain Giraud was the elder statesman. None of them had any interest in going bistro or California casual. Where’s the challenge in a steak frites or another salad of tomatoes and burrata cheese? They wanted the chance to use their skills. They wanted sauces, complications, exquisite technique. And an audience that appreciated finesse. Butter and cream? Bring it on, along with foie gras, truffles, lobster and game.

Not that anybody envisioned bringing back the days when men had to suit themselves up in jacket and tie in order to get into a restaurant. Or times when the only way to get a good table was to drop a name or slip the maitre d’ a big bill. This was more about the ceremony of dining and spending the entire evening savoring a multicourse meal prepared by said chefs. Some were so committed to the idea, they offered not one but several elaborate tasting menus.

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Alex came on strong with a format that encouraged ordering a four-course prix fixe menu for $58. If you came to Alex, you came to dine. Instead of offering just a few selections for only some of the courses, which is what many chefs do, he proposed a long list of dishes for almost every course. Many were gutsy choices, like grilled langoustine with anchovy butter or coriander-crusted skate wing. And while I do think Scrimgeour may have taken on too much, too soon, it was exciting to see someone reach instead of cruise.

Flash forward to now, two years later. The chefs with big ambitions have had to scale back. Bastide is no longer open for lunch. Aubergine has added an a la carte option. Josie tried out a small-plates menu. Melisse has a $20.04 lunch three days a week, which necessarily does not include lobster or foie gras.

And Scrimgeour has had to pare down Alex’s ambitious menu to a small a la carte menu and a set five-course chef’s menu. Fine dining, like the economy, may not have made the comeback everyone anticipated, so cooks adapt.

Scrimgeour’s classical training, though, comes through in whatever he cooks, whether it’s a composed salad or a simple lamb chop. And while I can’t say his new menu makes exciting reading, what’s on the plate is polished and assured. These are the kinds of dishes he can cook with one hand tied behind his back. But his cooking is much more consistent now than it was with a larger, more unwieldy menu.

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For diners accustomed to being crammed in at some of the trendy new places, it seems like a small miracle at Alex to find tables widely spaced and beautifully appointed with Villeroy & Boch china, good wineglasses and heavy linens. The lighting is subdued, but not so dark you can’t make out your food or your companion. More unusual still, the restaurant is quiet enough to allow a real conversation over dinner. It’s an eminently civilized place. Scrimgeour is a thorough professional, and the way he runs his restaurant reflects that.

To start, oysters come piled up on ice in their crinkly gray-white shells, already dressed with ribbons of mint and tiny cubes of crunchy apple and a splash of mild vinegar. It’s a completely charming combination. His tuna tartare is a refreshing take on the cliche. Hand-cut bluefin tuna tartare dressed in a squeeze of yuzu leaves an impression of laser-focused heat behind. That’s the serrano chile. It’s a perfect summer dish.

Scrimgeour’s endive salad, made with whole red and ivory endive leaves and an elegant Roquefort, is beautifully balanced. Caesar salad, though, is dull. The romaine is limp, the dressing sharp and vinegary, with something sweet in the aftertaste. Why bother? Probably because it sells.

I love the simple elegance of his foie gras au torchon, thick slices of the poached, chilled liver, served with little toasts and dots of puckery gooseberries. The menu name crispy duck doesn’t really tell you that you’re actually ordering duck leg confit nestled in a flat cushion of Gorgonzola polenta. This is no shortcut confit either but the real thing -- and terrific.

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The standout among the main courses is Maine lobster three ways, a complicated enough dish to get Scrimgeour’s juices going. He serves it out of the shell -- the tail poached in butter, the claw grilled and the rest used for the sumptuous stuffing of a single flying saucer-shaped raviolo. A new spring dish, snowy Alaskan halibut dressed up with the tiniest bright-green fava beans and teardrop tomatoes, is a close second for its elegant simplicity. There’s also arctic char, crisped on top and served with halved artichoke hearts that are deliciously blackened at the edges. The delicate pinkish fish against the earthy artichokes is an inspired pairing.

If you want rich, then the sumptuous braised veal cheeks is your dish, especially with a Pinot Noir from Alex’s list. Though the choices aren’t cutting edge and it will take some looking to come up with a bargain, you can find the usual suspects from both California and France.

When it comes to the dessert course, skip the drama of a chocolate souffle. It’s fine but not nearly the star the tarte Tatin is. Pastry chef Corinne Sidselrud has nixed the big buttery chunks of apples in favor of a fan of fine slices perched on a beautifully light pastry. The sugar is discreet enough that the tart of the apple sings through the sweetness.

With all the splashy new restaurants opening right and left, it’s easy to lose sight of the newer restaurants that are counting on the food, not the theatrical decor, to make them stand out. Alex may go for a traditional Craftsman look, but the food is a mix of impeccably executed contemporary dishes from a chef who is adapting to the moment. And that moment seems to be more and more casual.

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*

Alex

Rating: ** 1/2

Location: 6703 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 933-5233

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Ambience: Spacious, contemporary restaurant at the old Citrus locale with widely spaced tables and a spare Craftsman decor. The bar has leather club chairs. It’s also quiet enough to talk.

Service: Correct but relaxed, from servers in long-sleeved shirts and ties.

Price: First courses, $13 to $19; main courses, $26 to $39; desserts, $10 to $11; five-course tasting menu, $79; 9-course tasting menu, $95.

Best dishes: Oysters with apple mignonette, chilled foie gras au torchon, hand-cut bluefin tuna tartare, endive and Roquefort salad, crispy duck with Gorgonzola polenta, lobster three ways, halibut with fava beans and tomato salad, Colorado lamb rack, braised veal cheeks, tarte Tatin, caramelized pineapple in phyllo pastry with mascarpone sorbet.

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Wine list: Respectable but hardly cutting edge. Corkage, $25.

Best table: The chef’s table right in front of the kitchen.

Details: Open Mondays through Saturdays from 6 to 10 p.m. Closed Sundays. Full bar. Valet parking, $5.50.

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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