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It's Lunch Time And The Eatin' Is Easy

June 08, 1986|RUTH REICHL

I'll eat dinner almost anywhere. I don't care if it's a quiet table in the corner or a stand-up joint on the corner lot. I'm glad to eat chicken with my fingers in a moving car, a box of popcorn in a movie theater or pizza in a pinch. I even like those noisy new places where you can watch the stars dazzling the diners as you shout across the table to make yourself heard.

But lunch is different than dinner. In the daytime, I'm not the least bit interested in going out to shout. Nor am I much moved by seeing stars in the sunlight. The very thought of some boisterous place at noon makes my head hurt, and if I can't have a long, quiet lunch, I'd just as soon have no lunch at all.

A leisurely lunch is one of the great pleasures of life; there is nothing quite so soothing as being pampered over a plate. No matter how badly your day may be progressing or how frazzled your nerves may be, an hour or two at a well-appointed table will make the world seem right. There is, of course, one small problem with this: It can be horribly expensive.

But it doesn't have to be. Two of the higher-priced places in town are now serving low cost lunches. The truly civilized midday meal has just become one of life's most affordable luxuries.

Consider Max au Triangle. Chef/owner Joachim Splichal is the kind of chef that other chefs drop in on, just to see what he's been up to. His food is imaginative and original. His restaurant (it was named for artist Max Ernst) was designed to be modern, elegant and comfortable all at the same time; the minute you sink into one of the large soft chairs you can feel yourself relax. Soft music is in the air, the service is superb and you feel instantly pampered.

Looking around, it's hard to believe you can get a dish, much less a meal, for $15. But the restaurant is on the second floor of what is now an almost deserted Beverly Hills shopping mall (if you leave your car with the valet, you have to walk through a brightly designed but empty space to get to the restaurant) and that has undoubtedly hurt the restaurant's business. Perhaps that is why Splichal has chosen to serve a prix-fixe lunch.

To begin, there is a choice of appetizers, including a very pretty plate of pasta flooded with cream and dotted with crisp little commas of bacon and bright green peas. It is absolutely delicious. There is also a large salad made of mixed exotic greens (mache, endive and the like) and topped with julienne of ham, croutons and a single perfectly poached egg. Little bits of fresh basil pack a bit of punch.

Main courses offer a choice of fish or meat. Last week, the fish was halibut gratinee --a whole plate covered with filets of fine white fish buried by a layer of finely chopped mushrooms, the top slightly crisped. There was also filet mignon in a gorgeously reduced sauce, floating on a bed of spinach surrounded by little fans of zucchini and tiny turned turnips.

Eating lunch here is such a pleasant experience that as you sit in this lovely dining room facing a table laden with wonderful food, you can't help thinking how nice it would be to come back in the evening. (If truth be told, the dinner is a far more interesting meal.) But I will happily settle for lunch; it would be hard to find a better meal at this price anywhere in town.

Unless it's over in Pasadena at La Couronne, which now serves a prix-fixe lunch of two courses, dessert and coffee for only $13.50. This is another serious bargain.

La Couronne is a light, quiet, pretty restaurant. In the daytime, the sun comes flooding into the dining rooms, making all the glasses glitter. The service is calm and careful, everybody smiles a lot and the warmth of the welcome is absolutely infectious.

The menu offers a lot of choices. To begin, you might try a mixed green salad or a fine cream of asparagus soup that is shockingly creamy but still allows the bright green flavor of asparagus to come peeking through the richness. Oysters are seductive, the briny creatures covered with a light blanket of Champagne sauce. A julienne of carrots and celery is sprinkled gaily across the top.

Among the entrees are grenadine of beef with Roquefort sauce, hot or cold salmon with pesto and pimiento, and a really elegant duck salad. A pattern of endive and asparagus is arranged on the plate like a great star, lightly touched by an easygoing dressing. Slices of cold rare duck breast, the duck with a faint raspberry flavor to its crisp skin, are laid on top. It is a light and lovely dish.

Richer by far is the risotto of quail with morel sauce (this costs an extra $2.50). The dish is made with a stock so intense that the rice is permeated with the flavor of the fowl. This makes a good grainy background for the gamy flavor of the dark little birds and the woodsy flavor of the elusive black mushrooms.

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