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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Clothes, Cosmetics, Capellini and 'Dolce Vita' Spirit at Fred Segal

April 09, 1993|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After peering shyly at a $300 linen shirt, I fell in love with a pair of black suede sandals that cost as much as the new washing machine I've been saving for. I decided to think about it over lunch.

I didn't have to leave the store. Fred Segal, the pricey department store on Melrose, has two restaurants right near kids' clothes and Keihl's cosmetics. Mauro's Cafe serves salads, sandwiches and pasta, which can be eaten in a small interior alcove or carried via cafeteria tray to the patio. Il Posto Romano, however, is a full-service restaurant with white linens, fresh flowers on the tables, a maitre d'--just the place to mix power-lunching and power-buying.

Il Posto is a cave of white latticework and green plants. The floor is swirly brick; chunks of bas-relief sculpture hang on the walls. The front of the restaurant opens out onto the parking lot, which means hair-trigger car alarms of Rollses, Jags and turbo Saabs periodically punctuate the ambience. On this Saturday afternoon, Il Posto was feeding a sleek, moneyed Westside crowd. My friend and I couldn't decide if our waitress was more Anita Ekberg or Brigitte Bardot, but we both agreed that the spirit of "La Dolce Vita" was alive and well at Il Posto Romano.

The menu is, well, The Menu --the ubiquitous antipasti , panini , pasta and grilled entrees that show up in Italian restaurants all over town. There's a decent Caesar salad and a colorful plate of mixed lettuces with marinated artichokes and raw mushrooms. A leek-and-potato soup has a clear, pepper broth and great potato flavor.

In the bread basket are small squares of oily bread spiked with rosemary. We are initially dismayed to find the chicken sandwich served on more of the same, but the grilled chicken breast with grilled eggplant, tomato and mustard dressing proved delicious.

Large bowls of pasta are probably the most popular item: capellini alla checca is as good as can be expected given the state of tomatoes in early April; pesto linguine, enriched with cream, is fragrant and flavorful. Entrees, which come with a mixed green salad, are full, enormous plates of food, with steamed vegetables and amazingly golden roasted potatoes. A generous portion of mahi mahi is excellent, smothered with chopped fresh tomatoes, basil and garlic.

The espresso is delicious with the Italian nut tart, which tastes like an especially good Pay Day candy bar.

The service is attentive and professional, except for one thing: Although I am paying for lunch, the maitre 'd invariably asks my male companion, "Was everything OK?" Everything, I want to tell him, but such antiquated dining etiquette.

I returned to Fred Segal during the week. I gazed longingly at the $300 sandals, and this time ate lunch at Fred Segal's other restaurant, Mauro's Cafe. (Both operations use the same kitchen.)

One deli case holds an assortment of pasta salads and marinated and/or grilled vegetables. Another case holds desserts. Big slabs of focaccia can be cut to order.

Pasta salads tend to be made with penne or corkscrew pasta. My favorite was tossed with tomato, garlic and basil, although another, with vegetables and chicken, was light and good. Grilled and marinated eggplant and endive were so intense they could only be eaten in small doses, like a condiment.

I liked a bright, pretty slab of focaccia covered with green and yellow squash and bright red peppers.

A plate of assorted antipasti has as many or as few dishes as you choose. I saw one virtuous man, for example, with a minor mountain of only spinach. I ate a huge plateful of several vegetables and found myself far more interested in a nap than black suede footgear. At $7.75, the antipasti may be one of the biggest bargains at Fred's--at least until the September half-price sale.

* Fred Segal, 8112 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. Mauro's Cafe, (213) 653-7970. Lunch seven days. Il Posto Romano, (213) 653-2874. Lunch Monday through Saturday. Lunch for two, food only, $18-$45.

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