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Cooking & Entertaining With Style : Sunday Munching : Among The Stars

November 08, 1987|RUTH REICHL | Reichl is the Times' restaurant editor .

The rich can eat anywhere, but the famous must be choosey. Here, you are where you eat. And if you aspire to stardom, you, too, must consider which tables to turn to--especially for Sunday brunch, the most visible meal of the week. Celebrities know that if you're going to be seen, it might as well be in the right places Rosemarie and Robert Stack enjoy a glass of champagne at a sunny, fall-morning brunch on the Hotel Bel-Air's flower-filled patio.

Everybody in Los Angeles who isn't already famous intends to be some day. That is the secret of this city of celebrities. It is what separates the native from the tourist.

We may stalk the stars but we do it for different reasons than do tourists. They are looking for fast thrills; we are making an investment in the future. When we follow the famous, it is because we are trying to find out how to behave when celebrity finally strikes.

One thing becomes perfectly clear to anybody interested in future fame: It is vitally important to pick the right restaurant. The rich can eat anywhere, but the famous must be choosey. Would you catch Madonna eating among a group of old fogies? Not likely. Or Gregory Peck losing his dignity in some loud and trendy new eating establishment? Unthinkable. They know that in Los Angeles you are where you eat.

And if you aspire to stardom, you, too, must carefully consider which tables to turn to--especially for Sunday brunch, the most visible meal of the week. It is hard to hide when you are eating in broad daylight, on a weekend, when everybody has the leisure to look around. And celebrities know that if you're going to be seen, it might as well be in the right places. PLAYING IT SAFE

You really can't go wrong at the Hotel Bel-Air dining room. It's a dream of a restaurant, warm and lovely in the evening but particularly pleasant outside on the patio on a beautiful day. Bougainvillea drips over pink Spanish arches that frame bright blue skies. Umbrellas hover protectively, blocking the sun. Swans make lazy circles in the pond, while above them on a little bridge couples stroll, hand in hand. It is like some enchanted drawing come to life.

And even when the place is filled with certified celebrities (everybody comes here--the Reagans, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, even Tom Jones, who lives around the corner; it is the quintessential California brunch) the maitre d' manages to make you feel as if you belong. "Is this table all right?" he asks anxiously as he seats you, sounding as if he really cares.

The brunch is expensive--but worth the splurge. It's a major meal, one that rolls breakfast, lunch and dinner into a single repast. And it is a perfect opportunity for those less celebrated than they'd like to be to find out how fame feels.

The service is smooth and professional. The captain will offer a choice of fresh juice or champagne. He will then arrive with an opulent basket filled with croissants, muffins and various sorts of coffee cake. Only after you have worked your way through a basket or two will the actual meal begin.

Brunch here is served in two courses. Among the proffered first courses is a memorable carpaccio . It is a thickly sliced piece of raw beef on a bed of baby lettuces and young arugula. The top is glossed with a mixture of olive oil, lemon and herbs and then flecked with Romano cheese.

Other choices include menudo , for those with that morning-after feeling. There is also a lovely tortilla soup--a sort of warm gazpacho topped with fried tortillas, cilantro, chicken, cheese and chunks of avocado. There is fruit, either cold or in a warm compote drizzled with vanilla cream. But best of all is the Petrossian smoked salmon, sliced with a generous hand, served with a creamy grapefruit dressing, and topped with golden caviar.

Main courses offer a choice of breakfast or dinner dishes. Breakfast is not your best bet. If you must have eggs, try eggs Benedict with applewood-smoked pork loin and orange Hollandaise. That seductive sounding frittata of Swiss chard, mozzarella and sausage is a dull, overcooked omelet and huevos Zacatecas , which sounds wonderful, turns out to be nothing more than nachos with over-scrambled eggs and onions. However, most of the more substantial dishes are excellent. I especially like grilled marinated flank steak with home-grown greens, spicy cilantro and lime mayonnaise. Equally delightful is Sonoma lamb with melted eggplant (a saute of eggplant, tomatoes and zucchini that does not seem remotely "melted" to me), accompanied by a poached egg.

You can, if you've a mind, go on to dessert. Few people have the stamina for it. After such a meal, endless cups of coffee seem more appropriate.

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