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RESTAURANTS : The Best Course at Le Dome? Celebrities

February 21, 1988|RUTH REICHL

I know there is a view at Le Dome--but I've never seen it.

Every time I go there for dinner, I get plunked down in that drafty passageway near the door that passes for a dining room. Once, I must admit, they let me go inside to one of the dimmer rooms (it must have been a slow night). And when I finally did get over to look out of the window, it was lunchtime, when the real view has nothing to do with the landscape. For in the light of day, what you want to watch is all the important people as they power-lunch and table-hop and generally appear pleased that they aren't stuck in the back room with the windows and the tourists--and you.

I probably would not have noticed this on my own. But I found it hard to ignore the tantrums that other diners kept throwing over their table placement. "I don't eat in this room at night," said one man as he was being led to the table next to mine. "I want to be in the back where it's romantic."

"If you're going to seat me back here," pouted a well-tanned woman one day, jangling her jewels and glaring at the windows, "I just won't stay for lunch."

It didn't take long to understand that no matter where I was sitting, it was the wrong room.

Even this wouldn't normally bother me--if there were other good reasons to be here. But in four visits to Le Dome, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month, the celebrities were the most consistent thing on the menu. There were plenty of those, but they were only passing through on their way to different dining rooms.

Watching them move gracefully through, I couldn't help wondering if they were about to get the same sloppy service and uneven food that I was getting. The quality of the cooking is particularly irritating because the kitchen is so obviously capable of producing wonderful dishes. Sometimes it does; the fish soup, for example, is superb. I could happily eat that subtle liquid with its clean, clear flavors every day. It comes in a tall bowl, complete with rouille , little toasts and grated cheese. And the chicken croquettes, which are slightly crunchy on the outside and served with heaps of crisply fried parsley, are not only tasty but, at $3.75, the best bargain on any fancy menu in town.

The kitchen prepares an admirable boudin noir , that hearty peasant sausage made of thickened blood, and serves it with poached apples. And their sweetbreads are a delight. This is a dish of real finesse, a beautiful composition of gently cooked sweetbreads, oyster mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms and snow peas. The snowpeas and the sweetbreads are an inspired pairing, each bringing out new notes in the other.

If they can make dishes this good, why is so much of the food you get here downright disappointing? The onion soup, for instance, is thin and sad, with none of the carmelized onion flavor that distinguishes the dish. An escarole salad, that classic frisee au lardons , came with an overpoached egg, far too much bacon and so much vinegar that the whole dish was thrown out of balance. A warm seafood salad, which the waiter touted one day at lunch, was nothing but some clumsily sauteed scallops and shrimps sitting on a bed of wilted lettuces.

I should have known better, of course, than to order stuffed mushrooms caps, but these were nasty things, topped with bay shrimps and a deeply garlicky sauce. It finally occurred to me that it was a dish designed for people who like the butter that comes with escargots but can't bring themselves to eat snails.

Not even simple dishes are reliable here. Grilled chicken, good one night, was dry on another. And although the frites that came with a peppered entrecote were crisp and hot on one occasion, they were limp and cool on another.

"I recommend the osso bucco ," said the waiter one night. And well he might have; it was good meat and nicely cooked. But the spirals of pasta that came with it were tough and tasteless, and I never could get the waiter's attention to ask for a spoon for the marrow.

That's not unusual; the waiters seem to work on their own schedule, not yours. They are pleasant and available when it is time to take the order. The food appears with alacrity. Should you need service at any other time, however, you are on your own. The waiters become invisible. A second cup of coffee? Just try to find a waiter to ask for it. They've forgotten to bring a spoon? One day I asked three busboys for a spoon for my coffee, and then finally got up and took one off another table.

I probably would have been better off without the spoon. I used it to put some sugar in my cappuccino . And sugar was the one thing this particular brew didn't lack. It was thin and watery--and pre-sweetened--and it reminded me more of packaged cocoa than of anything to do with coffee.

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