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Visiting the Center Club

September 21, 1986|CHARLES PERRY | Charles Perry is a Times staff writer.

Drawing near the mighty entrance of the Performing Arts Center, you may note a little eddy in the left lane and glimpse a stairway angling down from it. A service stairway? Hardly. Not when it's faced in rose marble and you could drive a team of elephants down it. This is the grand entryway to the private Center Club. The great attraction would seem to be unbeatable convenience to shows, though in fact the club has been in operation for almost a year.

Who can rest not knowing what's there? What secret garden, what pleasure dome, what palace for the rich and cultured? Shall we see? Put on this putty nose and violinist wig and we'll sneak in and find out.

Yes, there is a secret garden with quiet ponds and a fountain at the bottom of that stairway, and the club is a sort of pleasure dome, though a very decorous one. The interior design is a baroque / Romanesque / Art Deco melange that would be a little loud if it wasn't all in shades of beige and blond wood and adorned with quiet California-genre paintings from the '20s and '30s. The men's room provides such extras as cologne (Consort is the brand, in case you want to pose as someone who has just ambled over to a show from the club).

Among the attractions are handsome private dining rooms, a cozy lounge bar that looks like a comfortable little living room, and a recessed ceiling in the main dining room that makes this a reasonably quiet place to dine even when fully occupied. And dining is basically what you can do at the Center Club. Although other clubs owned by the parent company (which runs a chain of more than 100 private clubs around the country) may have libraries or squash courts, this one is strictly for eating and drinking. Incidentally, paying your membership fee and monthly dues does not automatically get you a seat; there are 800 members, each entitled to bring guests, so members must reserve their tables just as you or I have to at a restaurant.

Before we consider the food, though--remember your disguise, you're a visiting violinist and I'm a big-time talent scout--bear in mind how a club works. Unlike a restaurant, it doesn't have to pull customers off the street, but by the same token it can't tell diners to go elsewhere if they don't like the food. There's no sense judging such an operation as you would a restaurant.

As you'd expect, the menu shows a good deal of middle-of-the-roadism (at least the particular menu we're trying--there's a new one every few weeks), a bit of squeamishness about spicy food. The lobster enchilada--lobster meat slathered in rich veal stock, wrapped in a tortilla--comes with a rather French sauce of cream and sweet peppers, a bit of caviar perched on top. The gravy on the lamb is flavored with conventional English-style mint sauce (though apparently made with cider vinegar rather than that savage English malt vinegar). And there are plenty of cream sauces for those who measure their good times by the dairy pint. Fettuccine comes in so much cream it's almost a soup.

Also, as you'd expect, much attention is paid to the traditional virtues of handsome appearance and top-quality ingredients. Plates are prettily laid out, perhaps decorated with a tomato rosebud since tomatoes tend to be peeled before being put in a salad) or the odd crayfish (decorative crayfish, in my experience, not really for eating). You find excellent beef, veal and lamb; exceptionally flavorful free-ranging chicken; very fresh oysters with a luscious horseradish sauce; vegetables reverently undercooked. Fashionable ingredients are here, too-- soft-shell crabs, trumpet mushrooms, somewhat sharp sun-dried tomatoes--but generally in a subordinate capacity.

The menu tries occasional dashing combinations such as veal with an intriguing sauce of horseradish and Pernod, but it seems most comfortable playing with flavors Americans love. The traditional combination of corn and sweet peppers shows up both in clam chowder and on veal medallions. Liver comes with fried onions--thread-thin, deep-fried onions. Banana pie is the old routine of bananas cooked with brown sugar, but in a pie with a bread-crumb topping, a banana version of that old Anglo-American dessert known as brown betty. To please all comers, there are austere dishes (pure but rather plain swordfish) recommended by the American Heart Assn. right next to blowouts such as chocolate velvet, virtually a giant chocolate candy with coconut filling. At lunch there's a muffin that turns out to have chocolate bits in it.

So there you are. It was delightful having luncheon with you, maestro. I know you have to get back to rehearsal soon to boast--or complain, whichever you please--about accommodations at the Center Club. Don't forget a splash of Consort before you leave.

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