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Food With a Flowery Touch

December 06, 1987|CHARLES PERRY

Catherine, 143 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 930-2230. Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday, for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $40 to $70.

"You've got to see it," said my official dessert taster. "It looks like somebody's boudoir." Well, close.

Catherine is really just a restaurant done in a grab bag of 19th-Century styles, but these days putting up satin wall panels and Greek statuary and loads of gilded ornamentation does look self-indulgent and even a bit boudoirish. Add yards and yards of taffeta swathed around the windows, and you've got a room with a sensual air that will either warm your heart--if you're sick to death of dry, spare, relentlessly modern decor--or strike you as overripe.

The food, too, has an eagerly lush quality. The fairly long wine list is mostly champagnes, there are always four different caviars available, and most dishes have an edible flower or two somewhere on the plate. On the dessert list, virtually every entry has one of these little "corsages," as my dessert consultant triumphantly observed.

Curiously, though, the food does not take the obvious route of old-fashioned haute cuisine . A lot of dishes seem to be new upscale adaptations of peasant dishes; in other words, they would pass for innovative in a California cuisine restaurant. In this antique room, they somehow have the air of simple country girls enjoying themselves in ostrich feather hats.

The first thing I tried was called "pizzette"--though since these little "pizzas" are made with puff paste, they're really a lot more like patty shells--fashionably topped with pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, goat cheese and pine nuts. Overblown, in a way, but certainly delicious.

The next thing was a chicken breast said to have been marinated--to what purpose I never quite figured out--in grape juice, along with substantial wedges of good polenta and some very lightly cooked spinach tossed with olive oil.

Not bad, but all this paled beside a stunning, curiously Mediterranean "chutney." Full of tomato and onions, it looked and smelled rather like ratatouille, but turned out to be made with apples where ratatouille would have eggplant. With its haunting aroma of anise and fine balance of sweet and sour flavors, this "chutney" was the sort of side dish you could make a meal of.

And so on through various cuisines. One day, there was an exotic sweet-sour cabbage soup that would not seem out of place in Iran or Eastern Europe. The "seafood griddlecakes" listed among the appetizers are very much like the Maryland crab cakes that have been invading our menus except for being made on a milder foundation of halibut and scallops. At lunch, there is a sort of California-ized salade nicoise : no potatoes, no beans, just hot grilled fish on baby lettuces with, of course, tiny purple flowers on the side.

I expect Catherine's food, like its decor, is not for everybody, but the combination is undeniably distinctive. If you like one, you'll probably like the other, though I must say an entree of spinach and scallops in puff paste struck me as somewhat ungainly. I also wonder why a restaurant with a huge wine list serves yellowtail in citrus vinaigrette that decidedly spoils the taste of wine.

I can report that my dessert adviser approved a number of things. Grand Marnier creme caramel is a rich, chewy model made with extra egg yolks, like a Spanish tocino en cielo . In the apple tart, the fruit floats in a little custard. There are some powerfully chocolatey desserts, of course. Oddly, the one like chocolate candy is called a chocolate cake, while "chocolate passion" is actually a cake, a particularly good multiple-chocolate experiment with a slab frosting and (the key to its success) a thin layer of chocolate meringue on the bottom.

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