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Max Covers All Of The Angles

March 10, 1985|RUTH REICHL

Max Au Triangle, 233 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills. Reservations, 550-8486. Open for lunch Monday--Friday; for dinner Monday-Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for 2, $60-$120 (food only).

Max is not packed. This is a surprise, for chef Joachim Splichal is one of the stars in the Los Angeles food firmament. It is also a disappointment, for when Max opened three months ago it gave Los Angeles an entirely new interpretation of modern dining.

Fine dining in this town used to take place in an atmosphere of almost hushed reverence, and good restaurants were the kind of places that made you nervously keep your elbows off the table. Then the noisy new restaurants sprang up as an antidote to all of that, and their casual insouciance was so appealing to the public that older restaurateurs began grumbling about the decline of fine dining.

Now along comes Max, a restaurant that is serious but not stodgy, quiet but not conservative, a place that preserves the dignity of haute cuisine while discarding the pretensions of old-style restaurants.

You know the minute you walk in the door that something different is going on here. The restaurant occupies an unenclosed airy perch that floats above a new arcade, looking more like a stage set than anything else. The elevator is enclosed in a little tower, and you step off into an interior landscape of etched glass and mirrors.

Motifs are used almost musically, slyly repeated here and there. Curtains are draped dramatically about, enhancing the theatrical effect, and if you look carefully you will find the curtain motif repeated in plaster as a sort of architectural joke. Just below the ceiling an open grid makes a dramatic swoop, giving the room a brash, modern air. It is not until you sit down that you realize that despite the hard edges there is comfort where it counts; I have never encountered a cozier chair.

Comfort is everywhere. While some restaurants manage to make you feel as if you should be trying to please them, this one makes it clear that they are eager to please you. The sommelier makes intelligent suggestions (on one occasion recommending a $17 wine in place of a $40 wine), and the waiter hands you the menu almost reverently, as if he cannot wait for you to see the riches contained therein.

The menu itself is lovely, rather like a fan, and when you open it you find a long list of completely original dishes. This is a chef who loves strong flavors and is fond of cooking traditional ingredients in new ways.

Opulent smoked salmon is stuffed into a Paris-Brest pastry, looking like the world's most elegant bagel and lox. Baby bagels, in fact, show up covered with nuts and served with a fabulous terrine of duck liver. Chicken breast is rolled into a "Napoleon," the meat itself substituting for the pastry. Each dish has one surprising element, one unexpected flavor. Eating Splichal's food is like going on a little treasure hunt, for this is a cuisine of constant discovery, and it makes the repetitiveness of California Cuisine seem rather tired.

The chef could not quite bring himself to leave the construction of a menu to mere diners, so he has created six set dinners ranging from $35 to $55 per person. These include a stringently vegetarian five-course meal, a spa menu guaranteed to weigh in at less than 600 calories, and Lobster, Lobster, Lobster, which offers three courses of you know what. Faced with the many astonishing choices on the menu, the easiest option is simply to order one of these meals. It is also the most economical--the five-course Menu Gourmand, which costs $50, adds up to $66 ordered a la carte.

On my first visit, I chose this and then perversely asked if I could make a substitution in one of the courses. Without missing a beat the waiter replied, "everything is possible"; I was immediately seduced. But this is hard food to resist.

"This is a chef who has the ability to make food taste good," said my most discerning friend, happily tasting that duck liver terrine, followed by superb crab-stuffed ravioli, the filling light inside gossamer pasta, the sauce pungent with sun-dried tomatoes. It was a complete delight to eat.

Next came filet of John Dory, the fish slightly toothy against the paper-thin rounds of buttery potatoes and the verdant smoothness of the spinach. A thin saffron sauce acted as a flavor catalyst, transforming each bite, changing the tastes.

Now came Ceylon tea and pear liquor blended into an earthy sorbet that tasted like biting into an icy autumn. It is a taste that resonates in your mouth, and I find myself thinking about that taste again and again. Certainly it was the perfect pause between the sea and the fields, the fish before, the lamb that followed.

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