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TROCADERO MEMORIES : Some Borrowed Glamour With Up-to-Date Food at Down-to-Earth Prices

August 28, 1994|S. Irene Virbila

In crisp black-and-white photos taken in the '30s and '40s outside the celebrated Trocadero on Sunset Strip, gentlemen in hand-tailored suits and glamorous women in bias-cut satin gowns step from Bentleys and Rolls-Royces pulled up in front. Inside, Hollywood's royalty smile into the flashbulbs, hoist cocktails, cut birthday cakes. "My 81-year-old yoga teacher was the cigarette girl," whispers a friend as we examine the framed photos on the walls of the club's 3-month-old namesake. "The stories she could tell."

The original Trocadero has, of course, long since disappeared, its site now a parking lot near Sunset Plaza. So when Bambi Byrens and her partner, Robert Wayne, opened a small restaurant along the Strip, they borrowed the evocative name. With stenciled Art Deco borders, bronze-colored drapes, sprays of orchids and other minimal touches, they've conjured up a sedate '30s supper club. Sinatra and Billie Holiday croon softly in the background. Dimly, romantically lighted, the not-so-large dining room has a curved wooden bar tucked in one corner; two minuscule enclosed patios offer refuge for smokers and a peek at today's more mundane vehicles idling before the burgundy-striped front awning.

There is nothing nostalgic about the earnestly up-to-date cooking. The chef is the peripatetic Robert Gadsby, who was brought out from New York to be Thomas Keller's sous-chef at Checkers Hotel during Keller's tenure there. In the two years since, Gadsby has cooked at Xiomara in Pasadena, Pyramid and Olive in Los Angeles and World Cafe in Santa Monica; he and Fred Eric were supposed to open what is now Vida, but Eric ended up going it alone. At Trocadero, Gadsby gets to be the main show, which is perhaps what he was looking for all along.

This is one chef who does not relish hiding in the kitchen. Gadsby can't resist coming out to introduce himself and talk about the dishes. Order butternut squash soup, and he'll materialize to pour the richly flavored ocher-colored puree around a mound of mashed potatoes topped with strips of spiced chicken breast. Ta dum! Or he'll wander out to discuss an order with this table or that. While he is very accommodating, he pops up so often you begin to wonder whether the man is restless or fishing for compliments.

Like his mentor Keller, Gadsby subscribes to the architectural school of cooking, which he describes as "fooditecture." Tall food, stacked food. Keller's influence shows up in Gadsby's predilection for piling elements, not always gracefully, on the plate. Seared yellowfin tuna one night comes stacked high, an astonishing amount of fish for $15. Another night, Gadsby is just as generous with the grilled swordfish, served with dill-scented mashed potatoes and good spinach. It's almost too much food for the money.

It takes a bit of sleuthing to discover the potato in the potato-wrapped Santa Barbara spot prawns appetizer--fine strands wrapped around sweet, meaty shellfish. The Caesar salad turns out to be a surprisingly plain-Jane version, somewhat limp romaine tossed in a creamy dressing that doesn't stint on anchovies.

Several of the entrees introduce a variety of Asian ingredients: Farfalle are tossed with chunks of chicken, peas and a spunky Thai pesto fragrant with mint. Tiny polenta gnocchi float in a shiitake mushroom broth saltily laced with soy sauce. Too much of the soy-based condiment flaws other dishes, too, like the otherwise excellent carpaccio of tuna with slivered burdock root. The delicacy of a beautiful piece of pan-roasted salmon is overwhelmed by a murky brown broth. But the perfectly cooked breast of flavorful chicken served atop glorious garlic mashed potatoes is just plain good cooking. Gadsby is clearly capable when he doesn't let his ideas get away from him.

Vegetarians are in luck at Trocadero, where virtually a four-course meal is served in a towering lacquered bento box for just $12. One night, the top compartment held a bracing hijiki seaweed salad tossed with crunchy burdock root and Japanese carrots; the next layers were boiled, salted soybeans in the pod and a cool tomato concasse topped with shriveled whole roasted chiles. The final course was a creamy rice cake with an irresistible crunchy crust in a rich mushroom broth.

Desserts include a sticky, delicious tapioca creme brulee with Mandarin oranges and a fresh pineapple ice with the sharp bite of fresh ginger.

If you like, the chef will make a tasting menu for the entire table for an astonishing $25 a head. Now that's a bargain. But no more than the rest of the menu; if the owners can keep the prices at this level, Trocadero may be the best value along the Strip.

Trocadero, 8280 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; (213) 656-7161. Closed Saturday and Sunday at lunch only. Street and valet parking. Dinner for two, food only, $38-$64. Corkage, $5.

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