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As The Tables Turn

July 19, 1987|RUTH REICHL

"How many meals a week do you eat out?" is probably the question I am asked most often. The answer is "about 10," although there are weeks when it may be as few as five and others when I have (truly) eaten every breakfast, lunch and dinner out.

"Are there really that many good new restaurants?" is inevitably the next question. The answer is an unequivocal no: Many turn out to be not good enough to review well (nor big enough to review badly)--and a large number of them aren't even new. Restaurants change so much--and so often--that keeping current is a job in itself. The place you loved last year may now be terrible. The place you loved last year, in fact, may now have a new name, a new look or a whole new menu.

A NEW NAME

Remember Orlando-Orsini, that restaurant that sat sleekly on Pico Boulevard just as it starts to chug up the hill to Century City? Many people loved the place, although I must admit that I was not one of them. In any case, that's history. Orlando is gone and the restaurant has now become Osteria Romana Orsini, which claims to have "true Roman cooking and a wonderful, up, sportiva Italian atmosphere!"

It does indeed have a wonderful Italian atmosphere. It looks like one of those warm little restaurants in Trastevere, filled with lots of wood and conversation and tables laden with great-looking food. The restaurant looks so thoroughly lived in that as soon as you walk in you can imagine sitting there all evening, breaking bread and passing a bottle of wine across the table to your friends.

Reality, however, does not cooperate with this vision; the bread is discouraging and there are too few bottles of good inexpensive wine on the list. And although the table filled with antipasti looked exactly like what you'd find in a small Roman tavern, the $8 combination we tasted was pretty hit-and-miss. A salad made of sliced raw baby artichokes and slivers of cheese was a definite hit, but the fuzzy fried baby artichokes missed. I liked the marinated peppers and the sliced salame, but I really disliked the oysters topped with a tomato sauce reeking of burnt garlic.

The pasta dishes were more impressive. I particularly liked zitoni alla sora nuccia , long elbows of pasta topped with a lively combination of three kinds of cheese, tomatoes and earthy black olives.

Main courses include some of the usual Italian dishes (a good veal chop, a tasty slice of thinly pounded beef called battuta ) and a number of Roman specialties. Beans and sausage turned out to be a sort of Italian cassoulet ; not the perfect thing for summer, perhaps, but thoroughly satisfying.

We already have a great number of fine Italian restaurants, but Osteria Romana Orsini is something a little different. The food here is hearty and homey without being corny. If only the service were warmer; the owner and the waiters were so busy dancing attendance on the celebrity at the next table that they had little attention to spare for us.

Osteria Romana Orsini, 9575 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (213) 277-6050. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, for dinner Monday-Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking. All major cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$65.

A NEW LOOK

When L'Escoffier opened in 1958, it prided itself on being "the most expensive restaurant in town." It's been a long time since that's been the case, but it continues to be one of the few grown-up places where you can dance while you're dining. And although the restaurant was thoroughly redecorated last year, the dance floor was left intact.

What did change is the color scheme, which was brightened to a soft peach, and the general look of the room, which has been made more modern. Even so, walking into this room with its tall silver epergnes filled with flowers, its live orchestra and its waiters bending over every table fiddling with flames, you feel that you've walked right into a '40s movie.

The food does little to dispel this illusion; although there is the occasional lapse into modernity (smoked tuna with ginger sauce as an appetizer or a perfectly awful hot spinach salad with smoked duck), this menu is for the most part formidably French and unquestionably classical.

This is the sort of froufrou food that nouvelle cuisine reacted against. Sauces abound. Among the appetizers, which include snails and morels in puff pastry, sauteed foie gras with brioche , and quenelles in Champagne sauce, is a lovely oyster timbale, a sort of oyster quenelle paired with poached oysters and served in a light watercress sauce. (The sole quenelles , unfortunately, were a little heavy.)

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