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Colonial Cuisine in Beverly Hills : Rangoon Racquet Club aims for the image of a gentlemen's club in the good days in Burma

August 12, 1990|COLMAN ANDREWS

If Ralph Lauren ever does a Burmese collection, he ought to shoot the ads at Beverly Hills' Rangoon Racquet Club. The place is said to be modeled after the original Rangoon Racquet Club in the capital of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), and its owner, Emanuel Zwaaf, served in Burma during World War II.

The stylistic conceit of the place is of a comfortable colonial gentlemen's club in Southeast Asia. Latticework frames the room, which is cooled by slow-rotating ceiling fans. A jungle-scene mural dominates one wall. And the waiters are dressed to look as if they might have just stepped out of one the restaurant's many photos of Victorian-era colonial troops.

Polite intimations of the exotic aside, the restaurant promises comfort and good food of an attractively old-fashioned sort. The room is lit just brightly enough, and with a warm glow. The spacious red leather-look booths practically beg to be slid into. And the menu is large, varied and tantalizing, suggesting a cross between Trader Vic's and something like the old Brown Derby, with maybe a touch of the Bistro thrown in.

But once you've been in the place for a few minutes, the pukka-sahib routine begins to pale: It starts to seem like a very short trip from here to the Elephant Bar, visually at least--and anyway, maybe mock nostalgia for British colonialism isn't exactly the most appropriate restaurant theme today. And those booths resist sliding, because the seat portions aren't leather at all, but a rough-textured fabric that clings to trousers and dresses. Most disappointing of all, though, the food is all over the map in quality as well as in geographical origin.

Dinners start off well enough with a complimentary "Scotch egg," an egg hard-boiled, then baked in a thin pastry crust stuffed with ground veal and beef. Also on the house are long tongues of delicious cheese toast and an assortment of pickled peppers and olives.

Beyond these beginnings, the food is sometimes just what it ought to be in a place like this: Crab-and-shrimp lumpia is a single crisp egg roll with a well-seasoned seafood filling, served with orange-marmalade mustard and Indonesian-style catsup and an excellent concoction from Malaysia called Lingham & Sons Chilly Sauce, salty-sweet and amiably hot. Cream of clams, mussels and shrimp is a rich and pleasing soup, if not exactly bursting with fresh shellfish flavor. Oysters Serangoon, oysters glazed with curry sauce and returned to their shells atop a bed of spinach, are very good. And the restaurant's well-loved cold peanut soup, full of shredded chicken, remains an unusual and appealing specialty.

Another of the restaurant's specialties, chili made according to former Wrather Corp. executive and perennial chili contest winner C.V. Wood's award-winning recipe, is full of flavor, if not particularly spicy. But it is garnished with bland, cardboardy restaurant-supply-company tortilla chips, which no serious restaurant in Los Angeles has any business serving.

Lean slices of calf's liver, cooked medium-rare as ordered, were superb one night, with a scattering of freshly fried onions on top. Chicken hash "21" (based on the famous creamy hash served at New York's "21" Club) is a generous serving of chopped dark meat in a lightly seasoned cream sauce, surrounded by a piping of duchesse potatoes. It's sort of a silly dish, but it's comforting and satisfying. And there's something appealingly luxurious about the thick, custardy creme brulee, though the big globs of whipped cream and the chocolate piping around the plate seem out of place.

There's something else more seriously out of place here, though. When the food misses, as it often does, the failures seem due more to simple carelessness than to any lack of culinary skill in the kitchen. Emanuel Zwaaf's obvious professionalism (and frequent presence) notwithstanding, there often doesn't seem to be a commanding officer in charge.

The problems begin with something as simple as the bread: French bread of average quality, sliced from a long baguette, that on two occasions had been practically cremated in the warming oven. Indeed, the smell of burning bread wafts regularly through the restaurant.

One evening, a perfectly decent Caesar salad was ruined by ice-cold lettuce leaves that had been improperly dried, so that the dressing was watery and thin. Gazpacho, attractively presented with separate little bowls of minced onions, cucumber, green pepper and croutons on the side, was obviously a little too old or had been stored at too high a temperature one evening and had begun to ferment.

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