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Food On A Rocky Road--doin' It In The Back Seat

January 25, 1987|MAX JACOBSON

One hundred and thirty dollars is a lot of money. Put it in perspective. In some countries, it represents the per capita yearly income of the average worker. Even here, it represents 650 calls from a pay telephone, provided of course, you don't call very far. One hundred and thirty dollars is a lot of money.

It also happens to be the price of something called Cassandra's Continental Drive and Dine, a Cerritos-based service offering a champagne dinner in the Long Beach marina, served by a chauffeur in a classic car (either a '52 Bentley or a '50 Jaguar Mark V).

The idea may seem excessive, but it has its charms. The price is for two--and what could be more romantic than a couple of hours of fine food and intimate snuggling in the back of an automotive classic? It seemed like the perfect way to celebrate a grand occasion. The reality, however, turned out to be somewhat less than perfect.

The chauffeur meets you at an appointed spot and escorts you to the waiting car, in this case the Mark V. The car has been somewhat restored to a kind of tweedy elegance, but if you're expecting to feel like Charles and Di, forget it. Ozzie and Harriet maybe. The chauffeur hands you two beautiful unmatched antique glasses and the party begins. The champagne is proffered; it is from Vineyard, of Ceres, Calif., in the San Joaquin Valley. It's not bad, but c'mon fellas, at these prices? Couldn't we at least have the Napa Valley?

Then you drive over hill and dale (mostly dale) until you reach the Long Beach marina. I personally find the 605 to be the more romantic of the freeways at rush hour, and I was pleased when the chauffeur chose that routing. The Long Beach marina, a pretty spot, is almost anticlimactic.

As you sit huddled together in the marina (it's 40 and the chauffeur has had his window down for the entire ride), you watch in awe as he fits small tables into the floor and serves you the first course, which he describes as country pate. We have been told to expect pate en croute with cornichons, but instead we are served something unctuous on stoned-wheat thins. Actually, I've always been fond of stoned-wheat thins. Just as we finish, the chauffeur peers in and says, "I see you're good eaters." He's a cheerful fellow, anyway.

Next he gives us pretty Japanese plates, antique napkin rings, real silverware and a salt and pepper shaker colored a limpid blue. The plates contain steamed vegetables, a steamed breast of chicken blanketed in hollandaise, and half a croissant filled with a cheese spread. "Is there more croissant?" I ask. "Only a half each," says the chauffeur with a smile. The food is tasty, what little there is of it.

As soon as the last dollop of sauce has disappeared from our dishes, the chauffeur snatches them away. "Now I'm going to bring you French pastry," he announces. We lick our chops in anticipation.

The pastry proves to be a real letdown; it is certainly not French as I know it. Instead, it is a commercially crafted square of sponge cake inundated in frosting and practically inedible. Really, guys.

The chauffeur again provides cheer. Before we have a chance to grumble about the pastries, he pours espresso from the thermos into little porcelain cups and tops them with Kahlua. They are warming and delicious. When we finish, we take a brief stroll around the marina and head back to the car, where we get the best value of the evening-- a Polaroid snapshot of the two of us seated regally in the back seat of the Jaguar. As we return, we mull the whole thing over.

It turns out we both had a good time, thanks in large part to this chauffeur, a fellow named Jordan who has a grin that could probably con a bag lady out of her overcoat. He did rush us rather aggressively but, in retrospect, it didn't seem to matter.

Jordan told us that the food is prepared in Cassandra's commissary and kept warm in wide-mouthed vacuum jars. Ingenious--but stingy. Why not serve larger portions? The half-croissant and sugary fluff that was passed off as dessert were inexcusable. Not everything is so austere; there was a second bottle of champagne had we wanted it. The problem is, we didn't. Besides, we still had to drive home from the drop-off point.

I wouldn't call the evening a bargain, but Cassandra's is booked well in advance and people apparently rave about it. Proprietor Jordan W. Price says he has had many letters of thanks for providing the service.

There is certainly something swell about being served dinner in the car. Personally, we liked driving and dining so much that we did it again right after being dropped off. But this time we took our own car--and no chances: take-out Chinese.

The Jag was a treat, Mr. Price, but the next time I spend $130 to dine, I'll do the driving.

Cassandra's Continental Drive and Dine, (213) 924-6160. By reservation only. No credit cards. Service for two: $130 (plus gratuity).

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