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RESTAURANTS : THE GRILL OF IT ALL : Hollywood May Crumble, Gibraltar May Tumble, but Musso & Frank Is Here to Stay

August 22, 1993|Ruth Reichl

How bad are you feeling? Want to feel worse? In that case, read Joan Didion's July piece in the New Yorker and find out what a morally bankrupt society you've been living in. Now that the good times in Southern California are over, she says, we've discovered that our children are vapid and our houses are worthless. Worse, when we go out to celebrate the American Way, we do it with dinner at McDonald's.

There is an antidote to this particular kind of poison: a meal at Musso & Frank Grill, which has stood for nearly 75 years as an argument against such indictments. A restaurant that started out in an upscale area and continues to offer decent food and swell service as the neighborhood crumbles around it, Musso's is our most democratic institution. You can't categorize the customers here by age, race or social class, and if you're looking for the American Way as it is really celebrated in Southern California, you can do no better than lunch at Musso's.

Everybody (or just about) comes in through the back door from the parking lot so they can peer into the kitchen, where guys in white coats peel mountains of potatoes and wash sand off a forest of spinach. There's no need to ask if real food is served here; one look at the kitchen and you know the answer.

Customers snake their way through the tables to the captain standing up front. "Hi, girls," he might say--no matter how old you are. He will then seat you and wish you a good appetite. He's been doing this for decades, and it's impossible not to wonder how, after all that time, he manages to sound as if he really means it when he says he hopes you have a good meal.

People come to Musso's because it's a place where stars are treated like ordinary people and ordinary people are treated with respect. If you've got a famous face--and I've never had a meal at Musso's that I didn't see at least one--the waiter might go so far as to say, "Hello Mr. Fill-in-the-Blank," but that's about it for the star treatment. The waiters, of course, wouldn't dream of telling you their own names, although they wouldn't think twice about telling you that you really ought to order the regular lamb chops instead of the fatter French lamb chops. "The regular chops," I've been told twice, "are so much better."

It was said, I might add, by the same man who said flatly, "You're ordering too much." He was right; I always do. Musso's has two kinds of customers: People who have been coming here for years and always order the same thing, and people who have been coming here for years and constantly try new dishes. Personally, I'm of the experimental persuasion, and although I know the portions are generous, I take one look at the old-fashioned, encyclopedic menu and find myself asking for a couple of dishes I've never tried before.

Having eaten my way through most of the menu, I should know better by now. The best things here--other than the cocktails, which are even better than they're reputed to be--all come from the broiler. The restaurant buys prime cuts of meat and does its own butchering, one of the few restaurants still to do so, and Charles King, who works the grill at lunch, is a master. If you come early enough, you can breathe in the rich, warm smoky smell that fills the room when he loads the grill with mesquite charcoal to prepare the day's fire. The pork chops that he cooks are fat and satisfying, the lamb chops are wonderful, liver is good and the steaks, while not prime, are swell. The grill man does a very creditable job with the broiled sea bass, too, although fish from the kitchen--not grilled--can be dull.

I've tried most of the more exotic appetizers, and I know that the best way to begin a meal here is the romaine salad topped with dressing made of imported Roquefort. This is a beautiful heap of crisp whole leaves of Romaine topped with a seriously delicious vinaigrette and a small, crumbly hillock of cheese. I like to eat it with my fingers and share it with a friend, but most of my friends have their own favorites. One is improbably addicted to the avocado cocktail--a silver sundae dish filled with perfectly soft, ripe avocado topped with Thousand Island dressing. I suspect this is a holdover from her childhood; with its pastel pink-and-green tones and its squishy texture, this is the perfect cocktail for a little girl.

Another friend swears by the shrimp cocktail. I admit it's generous--there are lots of perfectly cooked shrimp--but I can't help thinking how puny they are. And if I were ordering it, I'd ask for dressing on the side.

Sometimes my experiments do work. I once ordered Appetizer Frank, just to see what it was. It turned out to be slices of tomatoes topped with lots of anchovies and a thick yellow blanket of diced hard-boiled egg. I've been ordering it ever since.

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