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RESTAURANTS : STRIKING IT RICH : Ambitious Food, a Serene Setting, Reasonable Prices--This is No Typical Hotel Restaurant

April 17, 1995|S. Irene Virbila

The plane is late, and it is already 9 by the time we load Brian's bags into the car. As we drive in the sheetlike rain toward The Peninsula, the streets of Beverly Hills look deserted. Wherever we go at this hour, I envision us being the last table, eating a forlorn and hurried meal. Weeknights, Los Angeles tends to hunker down early, and in this weather, not a soul is stirring. We decide to eat in the hotel.

When we pull into The Peninsula's semicircular drive, a flurry of valets, doormen and bellhops ushers guests smartly in and out. The place is still wide-awake--we'd forgotten travelers never sleep. And yes, the restaurant does have a table for two.

Walking into this rather glamorous room filled with seasoned travelers, we're thrilled. It feels festive, as if we've arrived late at a sophisticated party. Across the room, two businessmen discuss shipping lanes in Hong Kong. In the corner, a langorous blonde leans back against the banquette, regaling her companion in German. On our left is a small birthday celebration. I can hear French at the next table, Farsi behind us. I begin to feel as if I've just stepped off the plane myself, charged with the excitement of discovering someplace new.

To my surprise, the restaurant's prices don't leap off the page. This is, after all, The Peninsula, part of the exclusive Hong Kong-based hotel chain. with entrees priced from $18 to $26.50, The Belvedere, while expensive, is not any more so than a number of other places where you eat less well, in less luxurious surroundings. (It would have been too much, I guess, to expect reasonable wine prices. Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, is $36 here. And if you feel like Champagne, a bottle of Krug Grande Cuvee costs $180, even Veuve Clicquot brut is $63.)

I order the game consomme to start. It comes in a two-eared porcelain bowl, garnished only with chives. It's a rich, warm brown, crystal clear, and it tastes like the essence of small birds. At the bottom, I find a few silky miniature ravioli with a pinch of stuffing, a whiff of truffle. I can't think of a better dish on a rainy night. The house-smoked salmon arrives: a swirl of fleshy salmon petals surrounded by triangles of hot, crispy potato cakes. The play of cool salmon, warm potatoes and a muted yellow curry-lime sauce is wonderful.

Delicate, pale breast of pheasant, roasted, tastes like a chicken that's been to finishing school. A soft, wrinkled leaf of cabbage floats the stir-fried wild rice above the delicious juices that bathe every bite of pheasant. Medallions of beef coated with marrow and herbs? It sounds like a dream dish to someone who loves marrow as I much as I do, but the texture of the marrow crust's doesn't quite work.

Desserts are elaborate, fanciful: a tall dark chocolate tower filled with chocolate ganache and berries, a tweedy souffle flecked with dark and achingly sweet white chocolate, an individual mascarpone cheesecake dressed up with brightly colored fruit.

The room, decorated in watery blues and greens, and accented with tall, potted ficus trees, is understated and serene, quiet enough for conversation. The chairs are comfortable, tables widely spaced. Waiters paisley vests rush about, unfolding napkins, pouring wine. All through the meal, you feel pampered, soothed, relaxed.

At the very least, hotel restaurants can be counted on to turn out competent, if dull, contemporary cuisine. The Peninsula's kitchen is more ambitious. Chef Bill Bracken's cooking is confident, full of flavor. He has a good sense of balance and proportion. And his dishes, which change with the seasons, are clean and focused, relying on stocks to infuse flavor. He also does a good job with the handful of low-fat, low-salt dishes on the menu.

His spring lobster consomme scented with lemon grass is low-calorie. A ruddy charred tomato and cilantro soup more than holds its own against a subtle and much richer fresh corn chowder studded with smoky shrimp. Grilled swordfish, another diet-conscious dish, is delicious, set on a cushion of couscous and a fragrant vegetable minestrone.

I also like the wild mushroom and potato cannelloni, made with thin sheets of potato, instead of pasta, and filled with a ragout of mushrooms and potatoes. Two of the best dishes take something from the land, something from the sea, and put them together. Salmon, lightly dusted with porcini powder, explodes with flavor. Veal tenderloin, pink and juicy, fanned out atop a chunky lobster and potato hash, is earthy and satisfying.

On our way out, we pass the lovely small bar, heady with the scent of expensive cigars. Every dainty armchair and sofa is taken. It's standing room only. At this haven for a young, cigar-loving crowd, the night is just beginning.

The Belvedere, The Peninsula Beverly Hills, 9882 Little Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 551-2888. Dinner for two, food only, $61-$89. Corkage, $15.

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