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RESTAURANTS : Puttin' Down the Ritz

June 12, 1988|RUTH REICHL

Ritz Cafe, 9320 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 550-7737. Open for lunch, Monday-Friday, for dinner nightly. Full bar. Valet Parking. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for 2, food only, $40-$60.

When Cajun food gets to Moscow, you know it's gone too far. Sam DuVall and Carolyn Chandler know it too. They are the owners of what was once one of the city's foremost Cajun restaurants, and they have just transformed it into an "American Bistro."

This has entailed a lot of changes. The room itself--one of the liveliest in the city--has become more comfortable. Those cozy private booths that hugged the walls are still there, guaranteeing the kind of intimacy you can't help wishing more restaurants offered. But now the clutter of tables that swamped the middle of the dining room has been replaced by banquettes, which considerably reduces the number of seats and the amount of noise in the room. And while the waiters are the same snappy fellows who have always made dining here such an interesting experience, you have only to look at the menu to know that the chef is new.

More than new. Surprising. "Why," foodies have been asking each other, "would Brian Whitmer come here?" Why indeed? Whitmer made a name for himself as the talented young chef at New York's Montrachet, a very good and very upscale French restaurant. Before that he worked in such other tony establishments as Aurora and River Cafe in New York, and Campton Place in San Francisco. But here he is serving food that is, in his own words, "not special-occasion food."

Actually it is, I'm sorry to say, not any occasion food as far as I'm concerned. I've really admired Whitmer's food in the past, and I've spent months puzzling over the mystery of the Ritz. But visit after visit has produced very few dishes that struck me as particularly delicious.

One that did is gratin of fennel with prosciutto. Thin slices of prosciutto were fanned out across the plate and topped with soft, almost melted slices of fennel and seductively buttery crumbs of bread. It has been consistently the best and most interesting dish of the evening. The other winning appetizer was a grilled quail salad that came dotted with tantalizingly soft, warm cheesy little squares of polenta. A blue cheese salad topped with hot bits of bacon was also a pleasure to eat.

A couple of holdovers from the old menu were also appealing. The Ritz still does a good gumbo, and their shrimp remoulade is nice. I'm not a fan of the oysters that they serve--Gulf oysters are generally bland, lacking the briny bite of oysters farmed on the West Coast--and eating them on the half shell is always disappointing. But I did like a special that Whitmer made one night, rolling the oysters in batter, frying them, popping them back into their shells and serving them with a smoked tomato salsa.

That's the good news. But there is plenty of bad news. The corn soup with shrimp (a frequent special), tasted little more than sweet. A caramelized onion tart, served with a small salad of curly endive, was simply a dreary wedge of onion pie.

There is usually a special pasta of the evening. One recent night it was wide flat noodles topped with mealy Manila clams, tomatoes and lots of fennel. It was not a particularly attractive combination. I was equally puzzled by the pairing of mahi mahi, a delicate fish, with curry and crispy strings of onions. Grilled loin of lamb with cous cous was certainly generous and inoffensive, but the meat was so bland it barely tasted like lamb. And the Ritz Blacksteak, which was once one of the best pieces of meat in the city, is now unreliable. One night it was the tenderly tasty steak I remembered from the past; another night it was mean and tough and topped with a bitter paste of herbs that you had to scrape off before you could even begin to approach the meat.

There was, however, one really wonderful main course: Soft shell crabs, which have just come into season. When I had them they were small, crisply fried and served in a lime butter sauce on a generous bed of asparagus.

There is not, I am sorry to say, a really wonderful dessert. The chocolate cake needs to be seriously reconsidered--almost anybody's mother bakes a better one. The vanilla ice cream that accompanied it was doing a good imitation of ice milk. Jack Daniels chocolate ice cream, on the other hand, was so rich that it refused to melt, even after it had been sitting on the table for an hour. But the worst dessert of all was a shockingly sweet blueberry sorbet that tasted like a prototype for a blueberry Popsicle.

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