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RESTAURANTS : SUCH A SWELL PARTY : Eat, Smoke and Be Merry--It's Tatou, Where the Beautiful People Never Leave

March 07, 1993|Ruth Reichl

You need to be on time," says the officious voice that has called to confirm the reservation, "since we'll only hold your table 15 minutes."

Tables are hard to come by at Tatou--and there's a reason: This is a party where the guests never leave. As the hour gets later, the party grows larger, becoming more raucous with each passing minute. The live music, muted early in the evening, gets louder. The restaurant begins to vibrate as people work the room, hang over each other's booths and turn this into what it claims to be--the first L.A. supper club of the '90s.

Nobody comes to Tatou for dinner. They come for the evening, and as the food disappears from their tables, they huddle down with increasing possessiveness, as if daring the maitre d' to make them leave. Sometimes you wonder why the management doesn't just charge rent.

Tatou is a new phenomenon in Los Angeles--and it's already a hit. Available for private parties over the holidays, it opened in January to a packed house. The guests here are not the usual suspects, not the foodies who run ravenously from new restaurant to new restaurant, hungry for untested taste thrills. Those people tend to come in, take in the campy soft palm trees that tower over the tables, sneer at the draped fabric that gives the room the air of a drooping wedding cake (and also does wonders for the acoustics), look around at the clientele and ask, "Who are these people?"

This is who: A young guy and a gorgeous woman with long fingernails and a bare midriff who sit down for dinner at a table in the front at 9. He says, "I want a Stoli with two pieces of lime."

She says, "I'm very tired. I just want coffee and the wine list." She then takes a little black book about wine from her purse and spends 20 minutes studying it, looking for the perfect choice. She finally makes up her mind, the server comes back, but before the woman can open her mouth the man orders. "Give me the butteriest Chardonnay," he says. "I always order what's most buttery."

Then their food comes--house-smoked salmon for him, shrimp cocktail for her. She gazes down at the cocktail, which looks like four shrimp in an Easter bonnet, and says, "Isn't this pretty?"

That is a matter of opinion. The shrimp are decked out with pansies, dill, endive and chives in what must be a new definition of the word overkill .

There are better appetizers that sound worse. One is shrimp and lobster with raspberry vinaigrette and creme fraiche that, despite its rather rococo name, is actually quite delicious. The shrimp and lobster are nicely cooked, and that raspberry concoction is incorporated into coleslaw, giving it a surprisingly pleasant, refreshing flavor.

There are also worse appetizers that sound better--such as deviled crab cake with cilantro mayonnaise and corn relish, which turns out to be fishy gray mush in a fried coat.

In its attempt to offer something to everyone, this menu bears a certain resemblance to what you find in hotels. Some of it is very good: The opulent terrine of foie gras is generously served on thick, toasted bread with a handsome handful of arugula decorating the plate. That house-smoked salmon is excellent. There's a decent steak with delicious French fries, and nice striped bass roasted with herbs, lemon and olive oil. Boned chicken is rolled around a stuffing of mushroom duxelles, then sliced and wrapped around garlic mashed potatoes. The roasted duck with ginger and black currants is quite good when it's crisp--and awful when it's not.

There are also plenty of things to avoid. The pastas, for instance. Each one I've tried has been an overdressed, gluey mess. The herb-packed snapper with oven-dried tomatoes is also pretty poor: Whoever decided that snapper could stand up to an intense coating of herbs was wrong.

But desserts, with the exception of the awful lemon sponge Napoleon, are good. The best of them is banana cream pie, which comes in a really generous wedge. Next best is the chocolate plate, an assortment of seven delicious desserts: chocolate pate, sorbet with the nostalgic taste of a Fudgesicle, hazelnut brittle, even a white-chocolate-dipped strawberry. The centerpiece is the warm, bittersweet souffle cake that is, with its dab of whipped cream, the ultimate cupcake. You see this plate on tables all over the room, and no wonder: There's enough here to keep you nibbling for hours. If you eat slowly enough, this plate of chocolate will give you an excuse to linger at your table all night.

If dessert doesn't do it, consider cigarettes as a time-consuming distraction. This might be the smokiest place in town--there's even a cigarette girl selling smokes and toys that only the inebriated would consider desirable. "It's only 10 o'clock," she confides breathlessly one evening, "and I've already gotten rid of all the really drunk stuff."

Tatou is fun. You can sit back and watch the celebrities slink upstairs to the dreary but popular disco. Or you can just sit down here and listen to the music, which is very good. So good, in fact, that on Tuesday nights when a woman named Charlie Jene sings blues and pop, the whole place comes together, and for a few minutes you stop wondering who all these strangers around you are and start feeling extremely lucky to have happened onto such a swell party.

Tatou, 233 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills ; (310) 274-9955. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday . Fullday bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two , food only, $50-$102.

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