Versailles, Mount Olympus, Hampton Court, Amalfi Drive. . . . We still think the names of faraway places give streets, towns, apartment buildings and even dry cleaners cachet. A restaurant called Boboli sounds much more chic than one called Ryan's Place. The new owners of the ground-floor site in the ICM Building on Beverly (who also own Pane Caldo across the street) have named their new establishment after the 16th-Century sylvan fantasy behind the Pitti Palace in Florence and created an elegant, relaxed place to eat.
I enjoy secret spots in formal gardens; indoors, I have a particular penchant for comfortable private booths. Boboli's creamy, crescent-shaped banquettes would be a good place for some wheeling-dealing or an intimate tete-a-tete. The restaurant has the feeling of a private club, with wood paneling, muted lighting, etched mirrors and a tin ceiling over the bar.
The changing of the guard hasn't fully taken place and we were taken off our guard when we first arrived. Ryan's Place is still the name on the door (as well as on the china), and we thought we'd entered the wrong restaurant. The menu and the Italian waiters sporting a raffish Don Johnson look cued us in to Boboli style; Boboli is civilized but not oppressively refined.
Its dense, hot, salt-crusted homemade bread is indicative of the care taken. Even the simple house salad is a good example of Boboli's fresh, uncomplicated cuisine. It's a sporting combination of mache, curly green lettuce, arugula, endive and radicchio with snappy vinaigrette. Platters are pretty without being fussy; portions tend to be large. Prosciutto and melon were presented as a glorious starburst. Grilled radicchio with melted smoked cheese was a terrific surprise: crunchy, mysterious, smoky, arriving at the table piping hot. A grilled shrimp appetizer contained large, tender, garlic-suffused shrimp, while a warm whitefish salad with lemon and orange zests was so understated it was too mild.
The woods of the Boboli Gardens are studded with classical sculptures. One comes upon them serendipitously while meandering through the green. Eating the risotto with lobster and saffron on Beverly Boulevard has a similar magical quality. I could get lost in the steaming dish studded with lobster and jolted with the amber spice. The gnocchi with porcini sauce was like fairy-tale peasant food: stone-shaped masses set in a pungent wood. Tagliatelle with crayfish, while good, was mild and far less memorable.
Salads, appetizers, the pastas and risotti are so generously served that one could do without a main course and still feel well fed. A friend had the risotto with lemon one evening and beamed over the sunny dish all night. All of the main courses we tasted--a filet mignon with vegetables, swordfish with fresh tomatoes and herbs, veal chop with lime sauce, chicken breast dressed with streamers of red, yellow and green peppers, jumbo shrimps sauteed with pesto sauce--were competently done, cooked as requested and served with light sauces and bright-colored vegetables. I can still picture the yellow squash charmingly cut into the shape of lutes.
Desserts are rich and handsome. There's a typical array of chocolate this-and-that, fruit tarts and a good tirami-su. If I wanted a respite from the urban world and a leisurely meal with a friend, I'd enjoy dinner again at Boboli--and I'd ask for one of their booths.
Boboli, 8897 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 859-4903. Open Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. (lunch) and 6 p.m.-10 p.m. (dinner); closed Sundays. All major credit cards, valet parking, full bar. Dinner for two (food only): $40-$90.