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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Chez Helene Brings the Air of Country Inn to Beverly Hills

October 07, 1994|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a neighborhood of mid-rise office buildings, Chez Helene endures, a near-magical evocation of a French country inn. One enters through a bower of morning glory lit from within by tiny lights. More lights twinkle in the trees on the patio, where hardy souls dine in brisk autumn air. Diamond-paned windows glimmer with rosy light. In an attic window: the silhouette of a black cat.

Inside: brick walls, wood beams, worn Chinese rugs. Dried vines and flowers wreathe mantles. A fire flickers in the back room. Cooking smells waft from the kitchen, a sensation, I realize, missing from most restaurants thanks to the ubiquitous exhaust fan. Chez Helene feels so like a private home in rural France that our group spins a story: A woman named Helene was such a good cook that her living room and parlor slowly turn into dining rooms.

Non, non, insists a dissenter. Helene must be the cat, the cat who graces the menu, peers from the attic; a black cat like those in the beautiful antique French poster hanging in the hall.

If asked, owner Marcheline (Mimi) Herbert tells the true story. Helene, she says, was one of the original partners when the restaurant opened 21 years ago in Venice. She left after a year, Herbert replaced her and eventually bought out the other partner.

As for the cats: "It's a long story," Herbert says with a sigh. In Venice, there were troops of neighborhood felines. Herbert fed them every morning. Cats swarmed to Chez Helene. It was a customer who gave Mimi that poster in the hallway. After that, chic cat silhouettes appeared everywhere, even on the charge slips.

Between the smell of meat roasting, the cozy dining rooms and the good service, a person could just purr. The kitchen's straightforward and somewhat anachronistic French cooking can be quite lovely, although it can also be unremarkable and already pricey food seems way over-priced.

I certainly expect better bread than dry, thin-crusted rosemary or olive rolls.

A starter of blanched asparagus has a green satisfying crunch, but the tarragon mayonnaise is a translucent, tasteless glue. Herbed goat cheese in a lidded jar of puff pastry resembles something served at a '60s bridal shower.

Better to start with soup. Potato leek, pureed to the color of canvas, is earthy and smooth. Cream of tomato soup with its few, slippery slices of mushroom and flecks of dry basil is true consolation.

A large salad of Belgian endive and walnuts needs a subtler, less acerbic dressing--perhaps the delicious balsamic vinaigrette that came on a special grilled eggplant salad. The Caesar is exemplary.

Entrees have a simple home-cooked quality. No doubt chicken roasted with rosemary originated centuries ago somewhere around the Mediterranean, but so far as I'm concerned, its source is Chez Helene. That's where I first ate it, at any rate, about nine years ago. The skin is brown, crispy, the meat unbelievably juicy and infused with rosemary tucked under the skin.

Calf's liver, marinated in olive oil and lemon, then swiftly sauteed, melts in the mouth: It's among the best I've ever eaten.

Side dishes, however, are confusing. Slices of roast lamb, perfectly medium-rare, come with classic overcooked string beans. Why no potatoes, though? Why no vegetables with liver or steak? Only the person ordering a fish special is given a choice of potatoes or vegetables. The best side dish, crusty-brown corn souffle, comes only with the chicken.

Sauces can be uneven. The night of the awful tarragon mayonnaise, salmon arrived in a grainy, pungent mustard sauce that only enhanced an odd muddiness in the fish--and scared me off any other sauces. On my next visit, I hesitantly tasted the steak au poivre's bearnaise--and found it fluffy, silken: the perfect counterpart to meat bristling with cracked pepper.

A chomeur, the waitress says, is vanilla cake baked with raspberries or caramel, "like an upside-down cake." She doesn't say that it tastes extraordinarily like pancakes. A tart lemon pie and the dense, gooey flourless chocolate cake, however, make for a happy ending.

* Chez Helene, 267 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 276-1558. Open for lunch Monday through Saturday, for dinner seven days. Beer and wine served. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $41-$81.

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