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RESTAURANTS : COUNTRY AIRS : Rustica Brings a Little Bit of Tuscany to Beverly Hills. But Maybe Not Enough.

March 20, 1994|S. Irene Virbila

It hasn't been easy getting across town at midday, and we're late for our lunch at Rustica, a new restaurant in Beverly Hills. Before we can get a good look at the dark, cool room, the athletic young hostess snatches up two menus and disappears at a power walker's pace down a long hall. We rush to follow, glimpsing a polished bar and a private room along the way. The garden room at the back is awash in sunlight. The day is warm. The potted lemons outside press their scent against the panes of glass. I'm half in sun, half in shade, and a cool breeze sweeps across the starched tablecloth.

Soon we're smearing a delicious rough paste of sun-dried tomatoes and olives on country bread, staining it the color of old roof tiles in Tuscany. Rustica, of course, is Italian for rustic, "of or pertaining to the simple country life"--as the restaurant defines it--which here includes tropical banana trees and feathery palms in terra-cotta pots and a white canvas market umbrella unfurled beneath the skylight. An enormous mirror framed in dark iron and oversized landscape paintings evoke the look of a raffish old villa.

We start with Rustica's refreshing chopped vegetable salad, a tall mound of sweet corn, radicchio, celery and carrots nicely dressed with balsamic vinegar and shavings of good Parmigiano. Linguini with wild mushrooms (really cultivated shiitake , oyster and crimini mushrooms) and shreds of radicchio are weighted down with too much cream, too much sauce. Saffron tortellini have a sticky-sweet potato filling, a strange contrast to the sauce of spinach leaves, capers, rosemary and watery tomatoes. Both pastas are too richly baroque to be really country. However, the free-range chicken breast with a lemon-lime butter and the swordfish topped with balsamic-infused tomatoes and shallots are beautifully grilled, presented with an array of almost painterly vegetables: very green snow peas, miniature carrots and turnips, and either tiny steamed red potatoes or glossy sauteed spinach.

At night, Rustica becomes a very romantic restaurant. The corners are shadowed. The light is soft and mysterious. Tables are set comfortably apart, and it's quiet enough for murmured conversation. Swags of cloth sway across the walls. A series of alluring black-and-white pastel drawings are hung in the spaces between intervals.

To start, we order the house-cured salmon, a lovely plate of salmon paired with potatoes, creme fraiche and golden caviar and a good salad of arugula, baby spinach and radicchio. But it's the pizza that's a delicious surprise, topped with slices of fresh tomato and wild mushroom, three kinds of cheese (fontina, mozzarella and feta) and ribbons of basil.

Entrees are mostly grilled. Whatever it is--Alaskan salmon, rack of lamb, free-range veal chop--it comes out right. The red-wine-based sauces with several entrees taste remarkably similar, which wouldn't necessarily be a problem if they were more exciting. And every plate gets a similar array of vegetables. One may have mashed potatoes, another steamed potatoes, but all have the by-now-familiar snow peas, miniature carrots and turnips. I'm all for seeing more vegetables served with protein-rich entrees, but give us real vegetables, not these tasteless examples.

The grilled New York sirloin comes sliced and accompanied with a towering heap of crisp shoestring potatoes. The Maine lobster, cut in half live, I'm assured, is grilled and broiled in the shell and moistened with a mildly spicy tomato curry. Its sweet-potato "hay" turns out to be wonderful sweet-potato shoestrings, piled so high it's hard to find the halved lobster beneath.

The Valrhona chocolate torte, with hazelnut anglaise and squiggles of dark chocolate, is perhaps the best of the desserts here. (Valrhona is a superb dark chocolate from France.) The diced, spiced pear in the creme brulee succeeded only in making the cream watery. They had to have tiramisu, I suppose, but with Kahlua sauce? A plate of biscotti and fruit would be perfect, and perfectly Italian, served with vin santo (a Tuscan dessert wine), but the only vin santo available is by the bottle ($37), not by the glass. At that price, you may want to forgo dipping the hard cookies in the sweet wine. The one dessert that has both looks and taste is the mauve frozen plum mousse flanked with apricot coulis.

The food at Rustica is pleasant enough and handsomely presented. What it lacks is verve and imagination, and at these prices, it should have both. The restaurant is only a few months old and may be proceeding cautiously. My hope is that chef John Beriker, who owns the restaurant with his brothers, James and Timur, will soon venture beyond this restricted vocabulary of dishes.

Rustica, 435 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 247-9331. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, nightly for dinner. Full bar. Lot and street parking; valet parking at dinner. Major credit cards accepted. Lunch for two, food only, $43-$71. Dinner for two, food only, $60-$100.

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