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RESTAURANTS : AT LAST: A COZY HIDEAWAY : It's Quiet and Cute and on the Eighth Floor of a Beverly Hills Hotel: Now, That's Hidden

August 16, 1992|Charles Perry

Sometimes it seems as if everybody's looking for a little hideaway restaurant. Here's one that could scarcely get more hidden. It's on the eighth floor of a Beverly Hills hotel so discreet it doesn't even have a driveway.

The restaurant is named The Club at L'Ermitage Hotel, but it's not clubby in the usual masculine sense of plush booths, dark wood and well-iced cocktails. Only 2 years old, The Club is a tiny, dainty sort of room full of paintings and flowers. A window looks out on the hills behind Sunset Boulevard; an etched glass panel separates the dining room from the bar, where a pianist noodles away on show tunes. Unobtrusive waiters rigorously serve from the right and remove from the left.

What are they serving? Ambitious, high-ticket hotel-restaurant food, of course, and they are decent enough to include the appropriate extras, such as a little something--like a spring roll filled with smoked chicken in a curry sauce--before your appetizer. After dessert, the waiter brings out a tray of chocolate truffles, perhaps including a peanut-butter truffle cloaked in white chocolate.

Surprisingly, most of what comes out of chef Dennis Burrage's kitchen tends to be both healthful and gorgeous. Well, relatively healthful, anyway. Several dishes are starred as "lighter," though not actually marked with American Heart Assn. hearts, and most dishes are conceived with vegetables in mind. The salmon rolls are stuffed with mixed greens; the saffron consomme is so crowded with julienned vegetables you could stand a spoon up in it.

At the same time, the dishes tend to the spectacular. An appetizer called asparagus crown with whole grain mustard chervil sauce and eggplant caviar (The Club's menu is the sort that reads like a series of recipes) looks like a green stockade of asparagus spears imprisoning some pickled eggplant and sweet pepper, with a slightly fermented taste resembling caponata. Around the stockade lies a moat of pale green chervil sauce.

Those peppered, smoked salmon rolls are equally spectacular, looking like four purplish-pink burritos. The burrito impression is enhanced by the guacamole-colored sauce (actually pureed cucumber and almonds) and the dollop of sour cream (but with dill). The richly smoky fish makes it work.

This kitchen is fond of black tiger shrimp. An appetizer of barely grilled crustaceans features several huge, gorgeous shrimp, crunchy with freshness, accompanied by vegetables and a vinaigrette sauce flavored with lemon and orange juices. I've also had black tiger shrimp cakes, like crab cakes, which arrived on a bed of vinegary black beans, surrounded by caper remoulade.

That was one of the weekly specials listed on the last page of the menu. On another week, the same basic idea reappeared with three cakes made of shrimp, crab and smoked salmon. Here, the crisp cakes, cloaked in caper butter, rested on a huge mound of fresh sauteed okra, a vegetable California unjustly neglects.

The best entree I had here was a prime New York steak, cut up in the nouvelle cuisine style and served in nothing but some beefy reduction, one of the most satisfying steaks I've had lately. It came covered with wild mushrooms and accompanied by crisp Maui onion rings and a complicated bundle of Napa cabbage wrapped with vegetables, tied up and steamed.

Seared, peppered ahi tuna ranked close behind the steak. The fish was beautifully cooked, rare in the center and with a crunchy pepper crust. The big drama on the plate was a striking tuft of deep-fried angel-hair pasta protruding from a mound of spinach like an old-fashioned shaving brush. The broiled veal chop also features dollar-sized potato pancakes and a tiny amount of faintly smoky tomato sauce. Lamb noisettes in garlicky meat juices, nice as they are, seem almost bereft, alone on the plate but for a hollowed-out Roma tomato with celery and rosemary sticking out of it.

Not everything is quite so splashy or so successful. The pastas, for instance, which you can order either as appetizers or entrees, are the least interesting part of the menu. Rigatoni with hot Louisiana sausage is OK, but no better than it sounds; saffron pasta ravioli with ricotta and pecorino cheeses is a little worse than it sounds--it takes a couple of spoons of grated Parmesan to perk it up.

The dessert selection is small and changing--the only constant seems to be the chocolate terrine, better described as a white-, milk- and dark-chocolate A-frame. Other selections might include fresh fruit tartlets (quite good) or perhaps a Linzer torte. Or maybe apple mini-turnovers or cheesecake.

All that food in such an intimate little room can make you forget you're in a hotel. Of course, The Club does serve the hotel's guests, and you can get breakfast (the usual selections plus some surprises, such as corned beef hash with sun-dried tomatoes) and lunch (much like dinner). But who needs a hideaway for breakfast or lunch?

The Club at L'Ermitage Hotel, 9291 Burton Way, Beverly Hills; (310) 278-3344. Breakfast, lunch and dinner served daily. Full bar. All major credit cards accepted. Validated parking. Dinner for two, food only, $61-$82.

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