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Dining reframed

RESTAURANT CRITIC

My mother has a thing for the Getty. She loves to get together a few of her friends and any relatives she can cajole and head up there for an afternoon. She doesn’t spend all that much time inside the museum, mind you, usually just enough to pop in and see a photography exhibit. But she loves the garden, admires the views -- and, most important, reserves a table for lunch at the Restaurant at the Getty.

After she waxed poetic at length about her last visit, I had the savvy to ask what name she made the reservation under. “Why, Virbila,” she told me, and then added, oh so innocently, “I wonder if they might think I’m the restaurant critic.” I rolled my eyes.

“Well, it’s my name too,” she insisted.

Maybe I would have gotten the stellar experience she claims she gets if I’d used my own name instead of somebody else’s. Not that I don’t enjoy the restaurant. I do. The staff is willing and able, the setting remarkable, and though the food is pretty much textbook California-Mediterranean, I’m thinking the kitchen might have pulled it all together better if the staff knew they had the restaurant critic in attendance.

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Even with the ups and downs, though, the Getty is hands down the best museum restaurant in Southern California.

Light and airy

Sitting in this room on a blustery day, it feels somehow so civilized to be having a proper lunch, not just a sandwich grabbed on the run. These days, dinner is served just once a week, on Saturday night, and it can feel a bit lonesome when the dining room isn’t entirely filled. And in winter, it gets dark so early you can’t really see anything unless you dine at 5 p.m., when the restaurant opens.

Nothing can beat the setting, that’s for sure. Housed on a bluff, the restaurant features floor-to-ceiling windows with a drop-dead view of the bluish Santa Monica Mountains and, on a clear day, the deep turquoise of the Pacific off in the distance. The large, open-plan dining room has a wonderful sense of light and air. The palette of white and cream is relieved by green-velvet chairs and the merest suggestion of color from tiny yellow orchids at every table. There’s no loud music to distract you from the view and the conversation at table. And the crowd, mostly tourists or friends and families getting together to see something at the museum, talks and talks -- about art, the view, politics, L.A.

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Waiters hesitate at the edge of a conversation, not wanting to interrupt to take the drinks order (the Getty has a full bar) or detail the specials. Distracted by what’s outside the windows, it can take even the most disciplined group awhile to get its orders together.

The menu from chef Mayet Cristobal changes every week as ingredients come into season, so don’t necessarily expect to find the same dishes I did. At lunch, “local green salad” is a lovely mix of wild arugula, radicchio and baby lettuce with Fuyu persimmons, dried cherries, apples and cucumbers in a slightly sweet vinaigrette.

Grilled flatbread topped with crumbled blue cheese, halved green grapes and weirdly wadded-up prosciutto tastes good, but it’s difficult to eat without everything falling off. Dungeness and blue crab cakes are moist and fat, rolled in buttery breadcrumbs for a little crunch, with plenty of fresh crab flavor.

But the best appetizer is a bowl of Pacific Northwest mussels and clams and rounds of chewy, paprika-streaked chorizo. Dip your bread in the delicious juices swirled with chipotle cream. Those chiles pack some firepower. This is the kind of gutsy dish you might not expect to find at most museum restaurants, which tend to go for the bland and inoffensive.

Given the chilly wind that can come up on the Getty’s hillside, a warm bowl of soup is a comforting option. One day, it’s a delightful parsnip-apple puree with more parsnip grated over the top to add some texture. On another visit, the flavors of beef barley soup are clean and fresh, the soup flecked with carrot and celery.

Range of offerings

When it comes to main courses, you can go completely Californian with a chicken Cobb salad -- moist chicken, good bacon, Maytag blue cheese and, for the season, dried cranberries and pecans, all tossed in a creamy apple cider dressing that ties everything together.

You can usually get a sandwich too, maybe beef tenderloin with a mild-mannered horseradish cream. Or you might try a seasonal risotto, which is usually decent. Pasta tends to be woefully over-sauced, though; don’t get it.

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There are several fish and meat dishes too. Pan-roasted striped bass is truly wonderful. Now here’s a piece of real fish, with a crisp skin and moist flesh, served with thinly sliced potatoes, leek and asparagus.

The Sunday brunch menu is similar to the lunch menu but adds several breakfast items, including a mushroom and herb frittata with smoked salmon and a generous handful of baby greens. The salad on top, though, arrives undressed, which is odd. French toast made with thick, tender slices of panettone is lavished with so much vanilla bean cream and berry compote, not to mention toasted almonds and maple syrup, that it’s more dessert than breakfast.

OK, we had to try the ostrich and pistachio sausage hash. Ostrich, which enjoyed quite a fad some years ago, has practically disappeared from L.A. menus. And this dish didn’t do anything to change my mind about the lean bird. What we got is a mess of dry, rubbery sausage, farmers market potatoes, wild mushrooms and a few sprigs of broccoli in a dark salty broth -- the whole thing crowned with a sunny-side-up egg. Not a pretty sight. And not very good either.

Desserts are on the homey side: a warm bread pudding, apple butter cake and, the best by far, a pretty galette that alternates apples with pears. A slice of this with a well-made espresso and you’re all set to hit the Getty’s galleries again for a look at Carleton Watkins’ photos of California in the 19th century.

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irene.virbila@latimes.com

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The Restaurant at the Getty *

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LOCATION

The Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive (at the 405 Freeway), Los Angeles; (310) 440-6810; www.getty.edu.

AMBIENCE

Museum restaurant with stunning views of the Santa Monica mountains and, on a clear day, the sea beyond.

PRICE

Lunch appetizers, $9 to $13; main courses, $14 to $20; desserts, $8.50 to $9; dinner appetizers, $10 to $18; main courses, $20 to $39.

BEST DISHES

(Menu changes frequently.) Beef barley soup, parsnip-apple puree, roasted apple salad, Dungeness and blue crab cakes, mussels and clams with chorizo, chicken Cobb salad, striped bass with leeks and asparagus.

WINE LIST

More than a dozen wines by the glass.

DETAILS

Open from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday and for dinner Saturday night only from 5 to 9 p.m. Full bar. Parking, $10. Reservations recommended.

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.

latimes.com/food

More photos of the Restaurant at the Getty and its most popular dishes.


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