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FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Bernard's New Domain

July 10, 1994|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Driving past the old Morton's site a few weeks ago, I noticed a banner draped over the front of the building-under-reconstruction: "Bernard Is Back!" it proclaimed. As if all of Los Angeles were waiting breathlessly. Bernard who? Why, Bernard Erpicum, the one-time all-powerful maitre d' at Spago, who decided the fate of would-be insiders every night, conducting parties to one of the coveted tables up front--or to the back realm where it was impossible to see or be seen. Needless to say, Mr. Erpicum made a lot of friends at Spago.

And he's counting on every one of them following him to his new restaurant, which opened June 30 after a flurry of celebrity-laced private parties. It's called Eclipse and features "the cuisine of the sun," which, at first look, seems to be St. Tropez tossed with California. As chef, he's enlisted Spago and Chinois alumnus Serge Falesitch, who cooked most recently at Delicias in Rancho Santa Fe. The decorator is no less than Lambert Monet, grandson of the Impressionist painter, who has given the large, high-ceilinged dining room a high gloss of velvet and brocade.

Eclipse's heavy glass doors close to form the splayed rays of the sun. From the bar, which has been moved close to the entrance, there's a view of the glassed-in kitchen where cooks in embroidered white uniforms and floppy toques toil before the stoves. From the brick wood-fired oven comes the house specialty: whole fish brushed with olive oil and herbs and fileted table-side. (Some of the waiters seem to be struggling, though.)

Seafood dominates the menu, from the starters (grilled langoustines, seared sea scallops in sea urchin sauce or oysters on the half shell), to seafood pasta and risotto, a Santa Barbara rockfish soup served in oversized bowls, and finally roasted, grilled and steamed fish. The category "from the land" includes dainty thyme-scented lamb chops and, oh yes, "surf & turf," which seems to have wandered onto the menu from another restaurant altogether. Desserts include frozen lavender-honey nougat and a torpedo-shaped lemon tart topped with candied kumquat zest, tart enough to make your lips pucker.

All through the meal, the suave Belgian works the room. The unsettling gaze of the Pharaoh in Alexander Mihaylovich's hyper-realistic painting seems to follow him from table to table. Kisses, more kisses. Drifts of expensive perfume. Plenty of accents. The room is full. The phones are ringing. So far, it's the biggest restaurant opening of the summer and, for the moment at least, it seems that Bernard is indeed back.

* Eclipse, 8800 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, (310) 724-5959. Open for dinner Monday through Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards. Appetizers $8-$12, entrees $18-$28.

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