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There’s still that friendly vibe

Times Staff Writer

FOR a young chef, finally getting the chance to command your own kitchen after years of working under someone else can be heady stuff. The temptation is wanting to do everything at once. The first couple of times I ate at Maple Drive under the new chef, Vincent Manna, I felt assaulted by too many ingredients and too many rich dishes. But now, a few months into his tenure at the 16-year-old Beverly Hills restaurant, Manna is finding a balance between dishes that cater to the restaurant’s regulars and those designed to show what he can do.

Maple Drive has been through some changes in the last couple of years. First, Leonard Schwartz, the longtime chef and founder, left to try his hand at barbecue. Eric Klein, a Spago alum, arrived and turned around the kitchen, earning three stars before he heard the siren call of Las Vegas.

Now Manna, who, like Klein, worked under Lee Hefter at Spago, has stepped before the stoves, adding his input to a menu that still proposes a handful of the restaurant’s signature dishes. Anybody nostalgic for Maple Drive’s Kick Ass Chili with all the fixings, “chicken in the pot” or the tall slab of meatloaf can be accommodated. But clearly the kitchen wants to move on.

The owners, though, have had the good sense to leave the music intact. Most nights, you can catch the fine jazz trio of Phil Wright, Donald Dean and Louie Spears, all consummate musicians who have worked with the likes of Nancy Wilson and Diana Ross. Sometimes a bass player or a singer will sit in for a tune. The music is a big part of Maple Drive’s charm, the pleasure of sitting in the bar, sipping a martini and listening to these guys swing through “Stella by Starlight” or “‘Round Midnight.”

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The jazz breathes life into the sleek modern room, with its angled walls, roomy booths, open kitchen and tall glass doors flung open onto a breezy outdoor patio. To play up the idea of restaurant as theater, theatrical lights are mounted on the beams overhead.

Manna took on a tough assignment when he stepped into the clogs of the tremendously talented Eric Klein. They both had worked at Spago, so Manna knows some of the same moves. But Klein, a native of Alsace, cooked with an Alsatian and French inflection, whereas Manna is drawn more toward the Italian side of the Mediterranean.

Instead of creme fraiche-smeared disks of tarte flambee, Alsace’s answer to pizza, Manna is turning out Neapolitan-style pies with thin, crackling crusts. Of course, there’s a classic Margherita, the plainest and, for my money, among the best. Said to have been created in 1871 to honor Queen Margherita of Savoia’s visit to Naples, it’s simply a loose tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella and sprigs of basil -- the colors of the Italian flag. Manna’s is an excellent rendition. But don’t stop there.

Another delicious one features fresh artichokes, chalky goat cheese and Parmesan with sprigs of thyme. A sumptuous five-cheese pizza puts fontina, mozzarella, Parmesan, goat cheese and ricotta all in one molten layer. A spicy chicken version, though, gets a bit baroque, piling on garlic, roasted peppers, mushrooms and a couple of cheeses too. It must be meant to appeal to someone intending to order pizza as dinner -- and nothing else. It’s a California (pizza) thing. My Italian friends shudder at the idea.

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Manna turns out agnolotti that could -- almost -- be mistaken for a Piedmontese cook’s efforts, if the pasta itself were thinner and more supple. The flavors of Castelmagno cheese, summer truffles and butter, though, make a kind of magic together. Lee Hefter put sweet corn agnolotti on the menu at Spago; Manna borrows the idea for his ravioli tossed with chanterelles, shallots -- and butter. The sweet white corn and delicately earthy chanterelles are terrific together, but here, too, the pasta could be just a touch more svelte.

*

Now that’s service

AT lunch or dinner, it’s fun to spot the VIPs sneaking in from the back. Is that Barry Manilow or a look-alike, the real Cher or an imitation? Who is that guy who looks so familiar? A heavy from the “Sopranos” or the psychiatrist with offices next to your dentist? But every bit as interesting are the jazz musicians sitting in and the families who treat Maple Drive like a home away from home, celebrating a birthday, debating a teen’s college strategy, taking an elderly parent for a rare night out. I can’t say that Maple Drive is the quietest restaurant in town, but you can talk. And that’s definitely something.

The service has always been one of Maple Drive’s strengths. It’s old-fashioned in that sense, and under the new manager, Michael Morrisette (formerly of Melisse), it has even been stepped up a notch. It’s one of the few restaurants at this level where waiters don’t seem like robots spouting restaurant-speak. They’re knowledgeable about the food, enthusiastic, accommodating and helpful.

The wine service is excellent, too, though the list could use some updating. Servers never pour too much wine into a glass and actually seem interested in the subject.

If you walked into Maple Drive without knowing a thing about the changes there, much of the menu would seem familiar, more in style than in specific dishes. Since Manna came from Spago, it’s only natural that his cooking would show the seminal L.A. restaurant’s influence, especially in the way he weaves Asian elements through the menu.

Japanese hamachi sashimi, for example, makes a lovely summer appetizer with a crisp cucumber salad, a dab of sticky rice and a drizzle of citrus-drenched ponzu. One night there’s a special appetizer, a tray lined with a deep green leaf and set with three pieces of sushi, each a different fish with a distinctive garnish. It’s pleasant, but fussy.

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*

Four’s a crowd

SO, too, the foie gras four ways on four square porcelain plates that fit together like a puzzle: grilled duck liver with a sweet-sour compote of figs and wild huckleberries; seared with honey-glazed endive and caramelized apples; chilled terrine served on brioche with a strawberry rhubarb compote; and finally an ethereal mousse with glazed plums and cherries. There’s a sweet element to every variation; after awhile the sweetness begins to cloy. One or two of these little tastes would have effect. Four together become a blur, especially since they’re all so rich.

The guy does know how to make a good risotto, a talent that’s quite rare in L.A. kitchens. I particularly like the delicate preserved Meyer lemon risotto with tiger shrimp, swirled with a little mascarpone and basil. Or the variation with Santa Barbara prawns, asparagus and lobster mushrooms bathed in a lobster nage. Manna is generally good with pasta, too, like the fresh linguine tossed in a mix of wild mushrooms with fresh English peas and Parmesan.

The fish on the menu at Maple Drive come with accompaniments that nicely complement each fish’s flavors. A crisp-skinned red snapper sidles up to a garlicky white bean puree and a fennel, onion and celery ragout. But there’s also crab, chorizo and a garlic clam broth in there somewhere, muddling the effect. The snapper is moist and flavorful, though, and I love its taste against the beans. Wild striped bass meets earthy roasted artichokes and potatoes, a few baby leeks and some fava beans in a tomato vinaigrette. But wait, there’s also a saffron tomato nage, a bit of overkill.

At the height of summer now, he’s doing smart things like roasting a free-range chicken and letting it commune with a summer vegetable ragout and a puree of Yukon golds. Does it really need truffle jus, though? The vegetables have so much sheer goodness and flavor, we don’t need truffles to tell us we’re eating well.

But when Manna reins in his exuberance, dishes come into focus, and the results can be excellent. A splendid pan-roasted veal chop works beautifully with a cranberry, lima and garbanzo bean ragout and bitter braised escarole. Veal saltimbocca, a chop pounded on the bone, topped with a slice of prosciutto and sauteed in butter with capers, tomatoes and artichokes, is terrific, too.

Manna has a fine instinct for flavors, but plating sometimes gets away from him. Duck breast with foie gras is awash in huckleberry sauce, which not only looks unappetizing, it kills the contrast of flavors. Desserts from pastry chef Lisa Gardner, who has been at the restaurant since it opened, are well executed, if not terribly exciting. Best bets include the festive swirl of apple tart with milky vanilla ice cream, or a cooling granite. It might be tangerine with fresh tangerine segments and the wonderful, slightly bitter candied peel, or a light, refreshing watermelon ice. Of course, for those who haven’t dined unless they’ve had chocolate, there’s the baked-to-order molten dark chocolate lava cake, which delivers a sufficient jolt of chocolate, given that it comes with both white and dark chocolate sauces. Otherwise, go with the cookies and a shot of milk. How American is that?

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Maple Drive is all about comfort -- the comfort of a beloved institution, the comfort of familiar food, the comfort of a staff that really takes care of you and your table. And the fact that it all comes wrapped in jazz is just the frosting on the cake.

*

Maple Drive

Rating: **

Location: 345 N. Maple Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 274-9800.

Ambience: Contemporary American restaurant secluded on a quiet, tree-lined street in Beverly Hills. It gets an industry crowd at lunch, more of a mix at night when a jazz trio plays.

Service: Personable and professional.

Price: Dinner appetizers, $9 to $18; thin-crusted pizza, $14 to $17; main courses, $22 to $37; desserts, $9; chef’s tasting menus, $70 to $90.

Best dishes: Neapolitan-style pizza, crispy calamari, smoked salmon, five-cheese agnolotti, preserved Meyer lemon risotto, roasted lamb porterhouse, crispy skin red snapper, oven-roasted hen, pan-roasted veal chop, apple tart.

Wine list: Strong on well-known California wines, but in need of an update. Corkage, $15.

Best table: One of the booths at the back.

Special features: Tuesday through Saturday, the jazz trio of Phil Wright (piano), Donald Dean (drums) and Louie Spears (bass) plays in the dining room.

Details: Open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. Monday through Friday and for dinner from 6 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; beginning Sept. 18, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday; happy hour from 4 to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday. Full bar. Valet parking at dinner; complimentary parking in Maple Plaza Garage.

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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