Your waiter recites the lengthy list of the day's specials as if he were auditioning for the role of Osric in a community theater production of Hamlet. Unsuccessfully.
Near the end of this soliloquy, after you have dodged several particularly vigorous gestures, you leaf through the menu and notice everything he's mentioned is neatly typed out on an insert. That special little salad he suggested costs $24.
You ask for a wine list, and several minutes later he brings you a folio the size of the Osmond family's photo album, cataloguing all the priciest Bordeaux vintages and, near the end, a few dozen more modest bottles. After the inexpensive sauvignon blanc is poured, the rest is put in a cooler just far enough away so that you feel foolish every time you skulk across the room to refill your glass. (The waiter disappears for so long, you consider organizing a search party to drag him from the foliage.) If you don't like philodendrons, the plant-infested dining room at the end of this place might make you feel like Sigourney Weaver in the alien birthing center--pots of the house plants hang from more surfaces than you thought possible even in the heyday of macrame. Sunlight streams through dusty skylights and onto white trelliswork glued onto avocado green walls; a semi-private gazebo dominates the center of the room.
"La Serre is the best restaurant in the Valley," one record company vice president said, "when you consider that the alternative is usually burgers at Hampton's. I like the . . . well, I like all the plants."
La Serre might be a nice afternoon out for a studio executive, and a welcome change from the commissary for production executives with fat per-diems. Magazine editors with trade accounts delight in the greenery, and reporters delight in being entertained here by publicists. Some very rich people somewhere, in fact, probably spend their own money when they dine here--if you find one, let me know--but La Serre is the quintessential Los Angeles expense-account restaurant, terra incognita to the sort of trendy showbiz folk who crowd their way into Citrus and Spago, and a waste of money for anyone not too distracted by business to notice the food on the plate.
No Free Lunch
Even if you're on an expense account here, there's no such thing as a free lunch.
There is a scoop of overcooked scallops--stuck together with the sort of lemon-dill mayonnaise that you'd expect to find dressing a pasta salad in the deli case of the local liquor store--in a tired radicchio shell, which is in turn surrounded by greens dressed with something pink and salty; a cough-drop aftertaste kicks in later.
Saffron-scented seafood soup, thick with tomato, crab threads and those darned scallops, is kind of a second-rate paella without the rice; not bad enough to send back, not good enough to finish. Sliced lamb loin, a fine piece of meat cooked to perfect pinkness, is all but drowned in a sticky, over-reduced brown sauce.
The smallest lobster you've seen outside a nature film--although this baby is so tough it would bounce if you dropped it; crawdads are bigger--is taken out of its shell and reassembled over a bed of curly endive that looks like a lawn gone bad.
And dessert, chocolate mousse cake gritty with undissolved sugar crystals and topped with canned-tasting mandarin orange slices, makes you cringe.
If one has nothing good to say, one generally should say nothing at all. But this was a $120 meal!
"Well," my industry V.P. friend said when confronted, "the place can be pretty spotty at lunch. But dinner, that's another story." True.
La Serre is candle-lit and romantic in the evening, and the philodendron room seems more sylvan than dated, a fine place to conduct discreet affairs, business or otherwise. We ask for champagne, and we are brought tiny bottles of cold Laurent-Perrier that bubble like mad. The waiter, French this time, correctly assumed we were adult enough to read the list of specials without audio-visual aid, and suggested something swell from the wine list: a smooth, sulfury Cote Rotie that we just loved.
Typical Gascon Dish