Four Oaks Restaurant, 2181 N. Beverly Glen Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 470-2265. Open for lunch Friday, for brunch Saturday and Sunday. Open for dinner Tuesday-Sunday. Full bar. Valet parking. Dinner for two, food only, $60-$80 .
There is only one bad table at the Four Oaks restaurant. The first time I ate there, that table was mine. The maitre d' took one look at two women and led us inexorably to the table that hugs the doorway between the dining room with its cozy fireplace and view of the garden, and the larger room with windows running the length of the wall. Waiters passing by bumped me with their elbows.
When I ordered wine, the waiter gave me a condescending little speech, wondering what stroke of good fortune had led me to select the best bargain on the list, a 1978 Leoville-Poyferre. He told us what he thought we should order to go with this lucky choice, annoying my guest to such a degree that she looked around the room and said: "Who are these people? Nobody who counts is here."
She was probably right--but not for long. From any other table the Four Oaks is a rather wonderful restaurant, serving the sort of accomplished modern French food that is so hard to find in Los Angeles, and in a rural retreat that is even rarer. It is a seductive combination, and I expect that what my friend calls "people who count" will soon start walking through the door.
What used to be the Cafe Four Oaks now has a distinctly French accent. It has been taken over by Henri Labadie (who was the first maitre d' at Spago), Michel Blanchard (who ran Le Castel in San Francisco) and chef Claude Segal (who went from Ma Maison to Bistango). The old restaurant is so changed that having wound your way up the Canyon to this bucolic spot you feel that you have somehow gone on beyond Beverly Glen to a countryside inn. It is, as they say, worth the detour.
Segal may have flirted with California cuisine while he was at Bistango, but he obviously had his fill of pizza and pasta. Now he's gone back to his roots and the menu is solidly French.
And some of it is dazzlingly delicious. A warm salad of baby vegetables topped with thinly sliced veal tongue is one of the best of the appetizers; little beets and turnips and the like are cooked just until they lose their crunch, drizzled with olive oil and crowned with the sort of tongue that falls apart when it hits yours. It is a country dish with polish.
There is nothing remotely country-like, however, about Segal's complex terrine of smoked eel, trout and salmon. Little dots of vegetables and strips of fish shine through the golden aspic making it look exactly like a Venetian paperweight.
I groaned when the waiter stood there reciting the ingredients of a special salad--". . . squab, corn, wild rice and cepes in a lightly truffled vinaigrette." It sounded like one of those tricky show-off dishes made of too many fancy ingredients. But I couldn't resist trying the salad, and it became clear that Segal knows exactly what he's doing; the flavors were perfect together. A plate of sauteed sweetbreads with stuffed zucchini blossoms and just a touch of truffle was equally impressive.
I was less taken with other dishes. Puff pastry filled with little clams and sea urchin butter was sadly undercooked, the pastry soggy beneath the chewiness of the clams. A soup of carrots and ginger was one of those dishes that make you want to swear never to touch French food again; there was so much cream in the dish you could feel your heart slow down. But the real loser was the most expensive appetizer on the menu: a pair of round baked potatoes, partly diced, mixed with creme fraiche and caviar, spooned back into the skins and served sitting on crusted thrones of salt. On both occasions that I tried them the potatoes were cold and undercooked, the caviar served with a miserly hand. The whole thing looked ridiculous, a topless tableau sitting on a plate.
The most expensive of the entrees was also my least favorite: sliced lobster surrounded by those little polka dots that some chefs carve out of otherwise innocuous vegetables. But all of the other entrees I've tried have been the sort of satisfying food that makes eating in France so much fun. Segal is very conscious of texture, and he has enough confidence as a cook to pair subtle flavors with surprisingly strong ones. He serves, for example, a filet of sea bass in a crunchy black coat of peppercorns, setting it on a bed of leeks cooked into an almost-jam and lightly splashed with vinegar. In one mouthful you have the slipperiness of the leeks, the crunch of the peppercorns and the silky flesh of the fish; the flavors remain separate, echoing the textures. It's a wonderful dish.
Rare slices of duck breast also come coated with peppercorns, but this time Segal serves them with a sort of jam made of onions and honeyed pears. The sweet, the savory and the hot all bring out different flavors in the duck.