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Ruth Reichl's Top 40 Restaurants

May 06, 1990|RUTH REICHL | Ruth Reichl is the Los Angeles Times' food editor and restaurant critic.

EVERY TIME I FINISH WRITING A REVIEW OF A REALLY WONDERFUL RESTAURANT, I AM OVERwhelmed by a pair of conflicting emotions. The first is enormous excitement over a great discovery. The second is enormous sadness that I won't be going there again.

Restaurant critics must move on. While you're dining at the latest discovery, I'm eating at the next new place. There aren't enough nights in the week--or enough dollars in the expense account--to allow me the luxury of going back to eat in a restaurant simply for the fun of it.

That's why this assignment was such a pleasure. When I was asked to pick the Top 40 restaurants in the region, I immediately wrote a list of places I was eager to revisit. I came up with almost 100 restaurants, and during the past four months I ate in all of them.

I had a terrific time. I also had some disappointing evenings. At dinner in one of Los Angeles' most revered restaurants, the waiter arrived at the table only to ask who got the chicken. This might not ordinarily offend me, but since the chicken in question cost $28, I thought he should know. Other lapses in service convinced me that, although the restaurant was good, it was not good enough. Another high-priced place had wonderful service but food so dull that had I been asked to spend my own money on the meal, I would have been incensed. I thought you would be, too; I left it off the final list (which is in no particular order).

Also missing are some of the amazing places that have opened during the past few months. If the restaurant wasn't open when I began my research, it wasn't eligible for the Top 40.

The Top 40 are special-occasion places. Most people can't afford to eat in them very often; I can't either. If you want to know where to find me most days, look at the recommendations that appear in the margins. These are the restaurants I go to again and again. As far as I'm concerned, it is the abundance of great, inexpensive ethnic restaurants that makes living in Los Angeles so exciting.

Finally, if you find yourself convinced that I've missed a truly great restaurant, please drop me a card. I'm always ready to eat--even if it's only my own words.

CITRUS

If you asked me where I want to eat, right this minute, I'd probably say Citrus.

This is a restaurant with soul, because chef-owner Michel Richard truly loves his work. No chef enters a kitchen with greater joy--and few chefs send such consistently satisfying food out of it.

Richard's technique is French, but his years in Los Angeles show. This is light food with a sense of humor. Shrimp might come wrapped in strands of potato and deep-fried. Scallops float in a bit of stock with a banner of pink pasta floating across the top. Whitefish lounges on a bed of mashed potatoes wearing a sauce of chicken and shallots. Richard's years as the city's premier pastry chef show, too. Nobody makes more beautiful food.

Can't decide what to eat? Don't despair. Simply ask the chef to make a meal and then sit back and wait for the fireworks.

Are there problems with the restaurant? Of course. You may be kept waiting at the door. This casual room can become uncomfortably crowded, and the covered patio tends to be too hot or too cold. The chairs could be more comfortable. Still, it's hard to get grumpy when you can look up and watch Richard running around in his glass-enclosed kitchen having such a wonderful time.

6703 Melrose Ave.; (213) 857-0034. Entrees from $21 to $26.

VALENTINO

Many years ago, I went to lunch at Valentino and stayed for dinner. It's that kind of restaurant--a place for languorous meals, lots of wine and romance. But afterward, when I told people how wonderful the restaurant was, they'd look at me knowingly and say, "But Piero Selvaggio knows you." And of course he does.

So I sent a secretary in for dinner and waited to see what would happen. Her report? "I've never had a better meal--or felt so well taken care of. Piero came up and asked us if we would like him to make a meal for us. He talked about what was in the kitchen, and together we devised a menu for the evening. It was heavenly; we started with little deep-fried cheese-stuffed zucchini blossoms, went on to deep-black squid risotto and then had loin of beef in balsamic vinegar. I asked him to choose the wines as well--and they were fabulous. He made me feel like I was someone: I'm saving my pennies for the next meal there."

And so am I. I go for the fried squid and ricotta fritters, the risotto (any risotto), the sweetbreads and mushrooms in Cabernet. I go for the pasta. I go for the wine (the wine list is L.A.'s biggest, and probably its best). In a town of few elegant, upscale, good restaurants, Valentino stands out. The restaurant was remodeled a couple of years ago, and now the city's best Italian food has a room that is worthy of it.

3115 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; (213) 829-4313. Entrees from $17.50 to $26. KATSU

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