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At Philippe Philippe, California Gets Heavy

January 09, 1987|ROBIN GREEN

A friend at Spago relates that a customer recently sent back one of their fine mixed-green salads, which are made with leaves of several kinds of exotic baby lettuces grown in a special garden in Encino.

"I ordered a green salad," the customer told his waiter. "This thing looks like a plate full of weeds."

The man would have heartily approved of the salad served at lunch the other day at Philippe Philippe, a new restaurant in Brentwood on the site of the old Gatsby's. The Philippe salad consisted of good old ordinary butter lettuce, torn up and served in a mild, hardly noticeable vinaigrette. The rest of the Philippe menu, however, would probably have driven the man berserk: salmon tacos, confit of duck in won ton with avocado and salsa, grapefruit gravlax with avocado and onion. And those are just some of the appetizers. The entrees: seared salmon mignonettes with black bean sauce, breast of duck with strawberry and Belgian endive, seared peppered lamb loin with cognac and cabbage, to name a few.

Despite recent reports that formal dining in L.A. has gone the way of the dodo bird, at least temporarily, this new restaurant is formal. All but unrecognizable as the old Gatsby's, the place has been gutted and opened up, replacing Gatsby's dark, neo-Mafioso decor with pale pinks and white, the red leatherette banquettes reupholstered in tweed.

No Muzak, no high-decibel acoustics here, no Spagoesque high-energy buzz. This room is quiet, the ceiling high, heavy pink draperies draped dramatically in an Old World sort of way, California colors and decor as interpreted by Louis XIV.

The same might be said of the food, which though billed as California cuisine (simple? light?), turns out to be in most cases ornate, rather heavy, and ranging from very good to good to not bad--to strangely tasteless. Baked white fish fits all four categories into one dish. The fish comes bathed in a sea of creme fraiche into which are sunk tiny, sparkling pools of red, yellow and black caviar. The combination of caviar and creme is wonderful, the sauteed pea pods and fried potatoes that came with it are fine, the taste of the fish itself strangely flat.

The seared peppered lamb loin with cognac and cabbage also provides some sublime moments, these from the tasty, creamy sauce and the surprise of caraway seeds in a warm, creamy slawed cabbage. Once again, however, the meat--gorgeous slices of perfectly red charbroiled lamb--is the meal's least memorable component.

Then there is the veal chop, the presentation of which is as dramatic as the drapes on the windows: a perfect-looking fat chop on an elegant long bone next to a red and yellow checkerboard field artfully made of pureed red and yellow peppers. It makes you stop and look and feel admiration for whoever is working this food over in the kitchen. But while it's good enough--the meat's fine, really, nothing wrong with it, and the pepper puree, well, it's fine, too--the look of the dish is what's memorable, not the taste.

On the other hand, angel hair pasta, served with shrimp in a creamy vermouth sauce at lunch and with scallops in addition at dinner, is a complete success, a rich dish too generous to finish. A salad of hearts of romaine with anchovy, parmesan, olive oil and sinful, deep-fried croutons is delicious. And so are the caramel custard and house-made bourbon ice cream for dessert, albeit the house coffee is awful (they'd never get away with that sort of thing in San Francisco), and the tarte tatin is disappointingly bland.

Still, even with its disappointments, the restaurant is a pleasant, easy place to be. The service fawns and fusses nicely. No doubt businessmen and women who work in the increasing numbers of office buildings nearby will come here for dignified business lunches, and bring their significant others in for dinner from time to time.

Philippe Philippe, 11500 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood, (213) 820-1476. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, for dinner Monday-Saturday. Visa, MasterCard, American Express accepted. Full bar. Lunch for two, food only, $30-$45; dinner, $45-$70.

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