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FOR YOUR EYES ONLY : Cafe La Boheme Is a Pretty Place to Eat Pacific Rim Food. If You Like That Sort of Thing.

February 02, 1992|Ruth Reichl

"Isn't this a fabulous room?" asked the waiter, bouncing up to the table. "I just love working in it!"

I stole a sidelong glance at the Reluctant Gourmet, waiting for the inevitable explosion. I heard him snicker softly under his breath as we came in, past Cafe La Boheme's giant statue of the Earth Goddess pouring water into a reflecting pool, past the log-burning fireplace that looked as if it could easily accommodate several oxen, beneath a shower of crystal chandeliers and into this booth with its hanging fringe. It's not exactly the room for your basic meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. I hoped he wouldn't say anything crushing to this eager waiter.

There was a silence. "Yes," he said at last. "It really is a spectacular place. I think I'll have a beer."

"That was nice of you," I said when the waiter left.

"Nice, nothing," said the RG. "When was the last time you were in a room that looked anything like this one?"

Nobody has ever been in a room quite like this. It's a homage to everything that's great about Hollywood--an artifact from a time and place that never was. Designer Margaret O'Brien has created a romantic fantasy that looks sort of like "Ivanhoe" in the 21st Century. "It's kitsch," said the RG, "but it's comfortable."

"Wait'll you taste the food," said the waiter on a return bounce. "Can I tell you what I like best?"

"Spare us," whispered the RG, while I nodded my head.

"The warm mixed mushrooms with sun-dried tomatoes and oba -leaf dressing is outstanding," said the waiter excitedly. "And you shouldn't miss the drunken chicken pizza; it's got ginkgo nuts in it!"

"Maybe we should quit while we're ahead," groused the RG, as the waiter warbled his way through descriptions of dishes that included pasta with seaweed and salmon on a tortilla salad. "It doesn't sound too promising."

But after drinking a couple of beers and watching the soothing reflection of the water dancing above the fireplace, he was in a mellow mood, and I even managed to talk him into trying the weird pizza. This may have been a mistake.

"You call this thing a pizza?" shouted the RG, staring in horror at little clumps of chicken strewn about a lunar landscape sprinkled with soft, yellow ginkgo nuts. "Is this supposed to be healthy or something?"

I didn't mind the pizza--even with its tough little crust, it had a bizarre appeal. It was certainly better than the mixed mushrooms, a concoction upon which the RG gazed in undisguised dread. "Isn't there anything here for me to order?" he grumbled.

In a word, no. The menu attempts to be as imaginative as the decor but falls woefully short. "Perhaps this is what all those East Coast publications mean when they talk about Pacific Rim food?" the RG speculated.

Perhaps--if by Pacific Rim they mean California continental filtered through a Japanese sensibility. How else could you come up with dishes like seaweed and endive, served in a radicchio leaf with a Dijon-sesame dressing? Or a combination of caviar, seaweed and pasta that arrives in an unappetizing tangle and manages to have all the worst qualities of the various ingredients--and leaves a bad taste in your mouth to boot.

"Can't I just have a steak?" moaned the RG. Yes, he could--but it was not destined to bring him much joy. The filet mignon came in a sauce made of various kinds of peppercorns and shiitake mushrooms. The flavor was rich without being meaty. "As for these so-called O'Brien potatoes," scoffed the RG, "they taste like they were made yesterday. Too bad--this could be such a great restaurant."

I can't say I was much happier with my seppie alla Italiano --pasta with squid ink that the waiter warned would leave my teeth black. That it did--the dish was pure ebony.

Where the color came from, I couldn't say, since the pasta had virtually no discernible squid flavor. Did the chef achieve that incredible shade with food coloring? Has he found some miraculous manner of rendering squid ink tasteless?

If the food is disappointing, the room never is. If you sit on one side, you can watch the dumbwaiter deliver drinks to the balcony, inching upward with its cargo. If you sit on the other, you can watch the antics in the open kitchen. And no matter where you sit, your fellow diners are a constant source of entertainment. At the moment, no restaurant in the city has a hipper crowd.

"Please find something I can eat here," the RG was still pleading as we walked out. "I really enjoy being in that room."

I tried. The two most unremarkable dishes on the menu are the roast rack of lamb--a nice plate of little lamb chops with some tame apple-horseradish sauce and a bit of eggplant--and the grilled free-range chicken that comes in a mustard sauce. I'd steer clear of the fish, especially the salmon that comes perched on a tortilla salad, a failed attempt at Southwest cooking. And the pork kakuni , a sort of sweet stew, is fine for the first couple of bites, then starts to cloy.

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