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THE DRIVE WAY : No Longer the Hottest Spot in Beverly Hills, This Restaurant Can Still Warm a Jaded Palate

July 24, 1994|S. Irene Virbila

When Maple Drive opened 4 1/2 years ago, Los Angeles still had restaurant fever, and a table here was one of the hardest to get in town. With Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli among the investors and a built-in clientele from Castle Rock, Lawrence Kasdan Co. and Steel Pictures right in the building, it was the ultimate insider restaurant. Those who happened to be members of the great unconnected ended up in restaurant Siberia--near the kitchen or the piano. But in these recessionary days, and with several newer restaurants to lure the locals, that's no longer so.

I walked right in one night, no reservation, and was seated at one of the posh booths at the back. The best seats in the house are upholstered in a gray geometric damask and so generous in size you could set up housekeeping. From this luxurious vantage point, a bit secluded behind the booths' triangular end pieces, there is a great view of the action, as waiters in black vests sprint between white-clothed tables and the gleaming stainless-steel kitchen. The handsome room, with its angled concrete walls and abrupt textural contrasts, wears very well.

The polished staff rarely misses a beat. As soon as you arrive, a busboy brings butter and warm, yeasty dinner rolls with a crisp, crackling crust. Order beer, and it is poured into cool, frosted glasses. Dishes arrive swiftly and always go to the right person. It's a matter of teamwork. And the kitchen has most of the dishes on the straightforward menu down cold. Practice makes perfect, after all: The cooks send out order after order of updated American fare like meatloaf, steak, chops, grilled fish, salads at lunch and at dinner.

One night we started with the signature kick-ass chili, a new American classic developed by executive chef Leonard Schwartz at 72 Market Street and brought with him when he moved to Maple Drive in Beverly Hills. All meat, no beans, this is substantial stuff, sludgy and complexly spiced with a smoldering kick that lingers in the mouth. It comes with a fine, firm corn muffin, for once not sweet, studded with fresh corn kernels. This is an appetizer? Well, yes, at least on Maple Drive's menu. A salad of roasted sweet red peppers, fresh greens and shaved Parmesan is understated and beautifully dressed.

Seared tuna remains one of the menu's standbys. This particular kitchen has turned the by-now tired cliche into a warm salad of sorts. Grilled rare, the Hawaiian tuna is sliced thinly and set on a bed of spinach, bok choy and shiitake mushrooms swimming in a ponzu- like vinaigrette. An entree of steak tartare comes to the table seasoned so strongly, its taste is tiring after a few bites; the toasted walnut bread is a nice touch, though. Factor in a slice of the double chocolate cake, a devilishly dark wedge flanked with a warm chocolate sauce and a fast-melting scoop of dense vanilla ice cream, for an appealing summer supper. Expensive, yes, but on the whole, well done.

On another evening, we're seated on the enclosed patio, where the view is of a darkening sky behind manicured ferns and tree tops. It's Friday night, and the restaurant has a brash urban edginess. It's louder now, a strain to hear across the table. And a bassist has joined the jazz pianist at the grand piano in the corner.

The meaty crab cakes, two pocket-watch-sized orbs accented with golden caviar, are delicious, if a bit pricey at $14. The lightly battered calamari are tender and tasty, paired with a bracing parsley sauce. Prosciutto with fig confit sounds terrific, but not this salty, thickly cut prosciutto with this jammy fig confit. "Barbakowed" shrimp salad is another idea that fizzles. Shrimp are coated in a sweetish red sauce, which weighs down the greens, and the pink ginger slices add a discordant note.

As for main courses, there is, of course, Schwartz's definitive, finely textured meatloaf, big enough for leftovers (a decided virtue in a meatloaf) and served with sterling mashed potatoes and the best spinach in the world. No problem devouring a tall pile of these deep emerald leaves. The generous veal chop is tender enough but, like most, without much flavor. Or at least not enough to stand up to the dark reduction sauce. Sometimes there's a hefty double pork chop with chunky homemade applesauce and almost always grilled loin lamb chops with lovely gratin potatoes and small bundles of slender green beans. A lean turkey sausage link with mashed sweet potatoes and whole-berry cranberry sauce is Thanksgiving-on-a-plate.

When I order the "steamed skinless chicken, matzo ball, vegetables, broth," my friend splutters, "$20? For matzo ball soup?" He quiets down once he tastes the clear, focused broth laced with big, moist chunks of chicken, uptown vegetables and a buoyant matzo ball flecked with parsley. This is an immensely satisfying bowl of soup, definitely in the comfort zone.

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