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RIVIERA REVERIE : Hot Jazz, Cool Prices, Warm Setting: All This and Fine French Provencal Fare, Too

March 13, 1994|S. Irene Virbila

We settle into wicker armchairs at a quiet table at the back of Lunaria, a Provencal restaurant in Century City, and admire the spirited watercolors of Provence that cover the walls--all painted, we are told, by Andre Montpellier, grandfather of Lunaria's owner, Bernard Jacoupy.

The waiter approaches. "The soup tonight," he begins, "is broccoli." We strain forward, revving up our memories to absorb a barrage of specials. But we're reprieved. That's it: one special. Catching my eye, the waiter rushes in to assure me that the soup has no cream. Do I look like someone who's afraid of cream? I decide to pass.

I've got nothing against the vegetable, but you'd have to be crazy to go for the broccoli soup, however good, when you could start with ragout of fat snails in chive juice with a light pastry filled with mushrooms and pigs' trotters. Or the incredibly delicious ravioli filled with lamb that's been braised for seven hours, sauced with a beautiful red wine reduction and tossed with button mushrooms, pearl onions and smoky lardons. A salad of air-dried beef and warm red potato draped with raclette cheese has a direct earthy appeal. Admittedly, the Roma tomato tart doesn't sound promising, but the deep-flavored tomatoes set atop fragrant sweet basil tastes of full-blown summer, despite the driving rain outside. The cold grilled eggplant and tomato roulade with a sweet red pepper sauce is just as focused in flavor. The grilled Portobello mushrooms, however, definitely need a lift, and the dressing on the steak tartare is overbearing.

Jean-Pierre Bosc, the Frenchman who won a following at Fennel, has quietly taken Lunaria's kitchen in hand. This is one chef who knows how to coax deep, intense flavors from his ingredients. He also knows how to make a sauce. For several years, Lunaria has been known for Mediterranean food; Bosc has expanded this specialty, offering sophisticated French cooking at moderate prices.

I don't know how he does it, but his Saint-Tropez fish soup tastes very much like the soupe de poissons served up and down the French Riviera. It's thick. It's brown. It's ugly-looking stuff made from all the little bony fish savored more for their flavor than their looks, cooked together, bones and all, and then strained out. It comes with croutons made from slices of skinny baguette. Dab some of the rouille (this one a tame version of the normally fiery mayonnaise) on a few croutons and float them in the soup.

When Bosc makes a bouillabaisse, he uses this same soupe de poissons as the base and poaches filet of red mullet (a Mediterranean fish), scallops, shrimp and mussels in it.

He's also a chef who takes the time and care to make good stocks. Each "pearl" of the round pasta that stands in for the rice in his seafood paella is coated with a flavorful fish fumet to make an elegant, light variation on the Spanish dish, this one studded with squid, scallops, shrimp and mussels and potatoes. And a rich stock upholds the complex flavor of his wild-mushroom-and-asparagus risotto.

He does wonderful things with braised and stewed dishes. The veal daube is a seductive simmer of chunks of veal with thick meaty lardons and tiny onions served with rustic garlic mashed potatoes. And I loved the Provencal artichoke "stew" served with the simply roasted rack of lamb.

The minute the waiter set the plate down, I knew Bosc's duck confit was right. It smelled just like the confit a friend from Southwest France serves whenever I visit. The duck's crackling-crisp skin and moist, seasoned flesh was paired with soft ribbons of cabbage.

Pass up the more expensive beef tenderloin for the French butcher cut. It's not as butter-tender and should be ordered rare or at most medium rare, but it's a very tasty cut of beef smothered in caramelized shallots and sauced with a red wine and vinegar reduction.

We're halfway through our entrees when the wall behind us literally begins to move. Suddenly our quiet table at the back is now stage front, and a jazz trio and singer launch into an extended tune at full volume. (What we didn't know is that Lunaria is also a full-fledged jazz club.) We struggle on to finish our conversation, feeling a bit guilty we're not devoting our full attention to the music but annoyed that we weren't given a choice of tables.

Desserts? We take the easy way out and order the dessert platter for four. Does it include the clafoutis ? The creme brulee ? Yes, we're assured. When it comes to the table, we've got enough sweets for twice as many people. Raspberry clafoutis and a matching scoop of sorbet, an apple tart with a sticky caramel sauce, a fancy banana tart and more are all quite good. Just as we are about to question its absence, the waiter sets down the textbook-perfect creme brulee.

Some people go to Lunaria for the food, some for the music, but you don't really have to choose one or the other. For theatergoers, the restaurant has a three-course dinner for $17.95 from 6 to 7 nightly. (The Shubert Theatre is just two blocks away; the AMC movie theater complex in the Century City Shopping Center is across the street.) Considering who's cooking, this offers what the French call tres bon qualite-prix-- great quality for the money.

Lunaria Restaurant and Jazz Club, 10351 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 282-8870. Open Tuesday through Friday for lunch, Tuesday through Saturday for dinner. Full bar. Valet parking. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $44 to $77.

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