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Style / Restaurants : Frankly French

June 25, 1995

I'm always a little puzzled as to why so few restaurants take advantage of L.A.'s cityscape. Patina is all cozy interior space. Valentino looks inward, not out. L'Orangerie's hothouse atmosphere is relieved by a glass roof.

So it comes as a great pleasure to dine in a room that opens onto a big view of the city. At fenix, the new restaurant at the Argyle on Sunset Boulevard, the dining experience is comfortable, luxurious. Tables are set far enough apart that you're not overhearing conversations. The service is correct but not intrusive. The food is sensuous, very French. And the chef directing it all is Ken Frank.

When Frank left the House of Blues, where he'd been cooking at the club's very private Foundation Room for a year, his many fans breathed a sigh of relief. Now he's turned up in this sophisticated setting. The landmark Art Deco hotel, formerly the St. James Club, is a stone's throw from La Toque, the small country French restaurant that Frank closed last year after almost 15 years.

Frank was L.A.'s first home-grown superstar chef back when the town was just beginning to discover real food. He'd fallen in love with French cuisine as a teen, when his family spent a year in France, and Frank stayed behind and apprenticed there. Now nudging 40, he doesn't look all that different from the gangly 21-year-old cooking at La Guillotine in 1976 who was dubbed "the Sinatra of the Stockpots". He was the star and opening chef at Michael's, the restaurant that ushered in a new era of fine dining in Los Angeles. And by the time he was 23, he had opened La Toque.

Fenix, a name that Frank came up with "out of the blue", seems an appropriate name for the comeback kid's restaurant. Much of the menu is familiar: his rosti potatoes, a thick, crusty cake of shredded potatoes topped with creme fraiche and a scoop of caviar; his salmon in caviar chive sauce, pellucid rose at the center, the sweet intensity of the fish played against the saltiness of the sauce. Double duck salad is a lovely composition of seared foie gras , strips of honey smoked duck, haricots verts and fragrant ripe mango.

He still turns out exquisite sauces made the old-fashioned way, with butter, wine and stock reduced to a glaze that's complex and layered with flavors. He serves filet mignon in a red wine reduction strewn with bone marrow and cepes. A hefty, delicious veal chop comes with a dusky wild mushroom gravy. Grilled rib-eye steak comes in a manly glaze of Jack Daniels and pepper.

It's the simpler things that are sometimes dull. His heart isn't in the watery Caesar salad or the lackluster endive and hazelnut salad. And though he's known for his duck dishes, two early versions of duck--the first with a sticky, sweet port sauce and figs, the second in a dried cherry sauce--were disappointing.

The economic realities of restaurants today are such that menus have to reflect what customers want. And what customers want is often not that inspiring to the chef who wants to wail in the kitchen. Frank neatly solves that problem by offering a different "Menu Fantaisie" each night. This is where he can show what he can do.

The five-course menu is a wonderful bargain at $55, considering that it often includes foie gras and truffles (though in July, the price will drop to $45 because it will be an all-garlic menu, except for dessert). I've had a perfect soft-shell crab gilded with butter and presented with oyster, shiitake and morel mushrooms in a blur of red bell pepper sauce; a divine layering of sweetbreads, foie gras , morel mushrooms and black truffles topped with a translucent potato "chip"; sweet seared scallops in a rich lobster sauce set against wrinkly morels; a beautiful rare venison chop emphatic with cracked pepper set in a pool of mahogany wine sauce. And one night, a satiny chicken with black truffles tucked under the skin. I've had a couple of duds, too, like a wild duck salad that sounded ravishing but featured tired shredded duck. Frank is having fun here, playing the richness of foie gras , say, against the slight sourness of a dried cherry sauce. The best of these nightly improvisations will eventually end up on the regular menu.

A classicist by nature, Frank is one of the few chefs around who actually knows something about wine and how it fits into the meal. It's Frank who is building the wine list, searching out selections to add to the cellar. He's the one who insisted on the good wine glasses. And he's the one who chose not to gouge on prices. When customers can afford to drink better, they're sure to get more out of the dining experience.

For the first time, Frank seems to have found the right setting for his sensual French food. My only reservation is that he's relying too much on luxury ingredients instead of putting his skills to work in a more original way. French food has moved on since Frank fell in love with it in the early '70s. Once he settles in at the Argyle, I'm looking forward to this chef widening his culinary horizons.

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FENIX

CUISINE: French.

AMBIENCE: sophisticated dining in a landmark Art Deco hotel with a view.

BEST DISHES: rosti potato with caviar, salmon with caviar chive sauce, "Menu Fantaisie", warm chocolate cake.

WINE PICKS: 1992 Chablis Premier Cru (Dauvissat), 1990 Chateau de Fonsalette, 1991 Hess Collection Cabernet.

FACTS: 8358 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; (213) 848-6677. Closed Sunday evenings. Dinner for two, food only, $58 to $110; five-course "Menu Fantaisie", $55 per person; Corkage $12. Valet parking.

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