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RESTAURANTS : Getting a Kick From Champagne

December 06, 1987|RUTH REICHL

Champagne, 10506 Little Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 470-8446. Open for dinner Tuesday-Sunday. Beer and wine. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $45-$80 (six-course dinner, $116 for two).

By all rights Patrick Healy should be our next superstar chef. Nevertheless, I am willing to bet that he won't be.

Movie-star handsome, Healy certainly has all the prerequisites for stardom. He has talent. He has connections (Julia Child is a family friend). He has worked in all the right places: five years in France with stints at Troisgros, Michel Guerard and Le Moulin de Mougins; five more years in Los Angeles, where he was head chef at Le St. Germain and then Colette. Critics love his food. Other chefs admire him. Healy even has a beautiful French wife, Sophie, with a beautiful French accent.

And yet if Healy is interested in stardom, he is certainly going about it all wrong. When he finally opened his own restaurant a couple of months ago, he did not get any big-name, big-deal investors. He did not hire a high-priced designer to give his place cachet. He didn't even hire a publicist to send out bulletins about the stars who have been spotted eating in the joint as bait to lure a lot of people to his door.

Healy did things his way. He took over one of those doomed spaces--a place on an otherwise residential stretch of Little Santa Monica near Century City where other restaurants have failed. He and Sophie painted it themselves, brightening the room with lavish coats of white. They borrowed some art from a gallery, hired a few waiters and, without fanfare of any sort, flung open their doors. Sophie runs the front of the house, and Patrick, instead of parading proudly through the dining room like any self-respecting star-to-be, seems content to stay in his well-appointed kitchen.

The result is that Champagne, despite all the California touches on its menu, feels more like a family-run restaurant in France than like a Los Angeles establishment. It has an appealingly naive charm--where else would you be told that there is no salad tonight because the chef's son's rabbit ate up all the greens?--and at the same time it has a certain seriousness. This is the first really grown-up restaurant to be opened by a young American chef since Ken Frank opened La Toque.

The room is simplicity itself, the main decorative touches being the comfortable high-backed upholstered chairs. They haven't gotten the lighting quite right yet-- certain corners tend to be a bit too dark-- and the wine glasses are so awkward that they give the table a touchingly humble air. (I may be jumping to conclusions, but I assume that fine glasses weren't in the budget.) Still, it is clear from the moment that the waiter comes out to proudly present the amuse-gueules (little deep-fried squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese, with a little pot of sauce to dip them into), that you are meant to pay more attention to the food than to the surroundings.

The menu has been divided into five parts: contemporary cuisine, rustic specialties, classic food, spa cuisine and a prix fixe six-course "gastronomic menu" at $58. Sometimes, however, the distinctions seem to blur, and I'll bet that Healy will do away with this conceit before too long. Even the waiter couldn't tell us what the real difference was between a saddle of lamb on the contemporary side of the menu and a roast lamb on the rustic side.

Healy seems to go for big, bold flavors, and the more aggressive dishes tend to be the most successful. He is especially adept with game birds, and a special dish of wild Scottish duck in a peppercorn sauce was the tastiest duck I've been served in Los Angeles. But although I thought it was absolutely wonderful, this is clearly not a dish for everyone; the duck, which came sitting on a bed of chanterelles, was so gamy that it overpowered the sauce, and the friend who ordered it said, with an air of deep disappointment, that she thought it tasted like steak.

Healy also does wonderful things with squab. One night, there was an appetizer of rare strips of the bird arranged across a heap of soft garlicky cepes-- those mushrooms with the texture of marrow--the whole bound up in a sauce with just a touch of port. On another night, squab came paired with a compote of figs, a wonderful taste complement. This was especially true of the breast meat, which had been sliced and layered with rich slabs of sauteed foie gras. The crispy little legs were crossed like a bow on the top, punctuating a dish of almost decadent deliciousness.

Healy also works wonders with lamb. A saddle of lamb one night was a revelation. Healy roasted the loin rare and served it in slices, then contrasted it with rack of lamb, better cooked and cut into chops of amazing tenderness. The one was chewy, the other tender enough to cut with a fork. They shared the plate with a swatch of garlicky scalloped potatoes and a scattering of peas.

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