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STYLE / RESTAURANTS : Waiting for a Palace Coup

October 08, 1995|S. Irene Virbila

"Good morning, good morning, good morning, all you beautiful ladies," cries out a familiar, irrepressibly cheerful voice. Yes, that's Mickey Rooney steaming past the reception desk on his way to the Polo Lounge. It is a gorgeous, sunny morning in Beverly Hills, and all's right with the world. With a parade of stately cars nosing up to the green-and-white striped porte-cochere in front, the Pink Palace is back in business.

Both the Polo Lounge and the Fountain Coffee Shop are spruced up, provided with newly minted menus and a staff smartly outfitted in white jackets. There's also a new high-end restaurant, the Polo Grill. But getting a grand hotel up and running after a major renovation is no easy task, so when my first couple of meals disappoint, I'm not too alarmed. Give them a little time, I think. Surely the kitchens will start turning out better food and surely the service will improve. Now that I've eaten in the hotel's various restaurants several times each, I'm not so sure anymore.

At first, the new Polo Grill, open for dinner only, seems alluring. It has undulating mahogany walls, spacious curved booths, an Art Deco motif--and prices right up there with L'Orangerie's, signaling a "serious" restaurant. But the Polo Grill doesn't deliver. The 75-seat room is set up so you can see the staff talking, huddled near the kitchen door, anywhere but at your table. One waiter is obsequious, the next is distracted. On one visit, it takes 10 minutes to get water, 10 more to get a menu, even longer to order. And through it all, the maitre d' is oblivious to our plight. Even worse, the food, when it finally arrives, does little to lift our spirits.

The overly ambitious opening menu includes arcane dishes that don't work, save for the black mushroom "tea" with pearl barley and clam risotto (which I happen to like) and delicious "crusted" duck livers with beets and red cabbage. But what to make of a salad of warm arugula and white peaches with oxtail-and-goat-cheese tortellini or an astonishing combination of stewed lamb shank and lobster claws? The menu is either intriguing or bizarre--depending on your point of view. At these prices, you expect more than a few good dishes.

By my next visit, the menu has been revised. The little mushroom tea seems to have been banished, but you can still find ill-conceived concoctions such as a leathery crab ravioli smothered with too-salty greens and a Gorgonzola terrine topped with white peaches turning brown at the edges. Although there's a perfectly delicious venison loin, it's oddly paired with a cranberry-Roquefort chutney. Only the co^te de boeuf ($65 for two) escapes the kitchen without complication. Carved tableside, the huge rack of beef is very nicely cooked, simply and masterfully presented with baby vegetables. Desserts, good as they are, can't save the evening.

Breakfast at the fabled Polo Lounge just may be its finest moment. This is the one restaurant in the hotel where the service is crisp and efficient. Eggs Benedict are exactly what the dish should be, and the famous Dutch apple pancake is a delight. Seated at a forest green booth or on the patio beneath the gnarled 86-year-old Brazilian pepper tree, you can almost recapture the thrill of the Polo Lounge's old glamour.

Sitting outside on a balmy night, we're ready for a swell evening, sure that the Polo Lounge will have a more sensible menu than the Polo Grill. No such luck. Here, too, it's eccentric and wildly overambitious. Except for tea-smoked duck breast, first courses are disastrous: Caesar salad made with limp lettuce and rock-hard croutons, and fresh but tough lobster ravioli in a salty sauce perfumed with white truffle oil. An overcooked veal chop is piled with a mess of browned vegetables. The best entree we try is rack of lamb, beautifully and simply cooked. To finish, there's a smooth, eggy creme bru^lee. But for dinner at almost $75 a person, it's a poor showing.

The lunch menu is more straightforward. Fresh shrimp cocktail, scentedwith lemon grass, is a nice twist on the classic. Chili is pretty good--half beans, half meat--though it could be juicier. And the sirloin burger, at $16, is excellent. But Gary salad (named after a former chef) is a bland mix of more lifeless greens, turkey, hard-boiled egg and Russian dressing. Although terrific-looking, the triple-decker club sandwich, speared with frilly toothpicks, is dry and without much taste. Nearby, ladies who lunch seem to know what to order: the McCarthy salad (a fresh, appealing mix of chicken, tomato, bacon, egg, beets and cheddar with Bibb lettuce), tossed at the table. Lunch for three--no alcohol, no desserts, a couple of bitter espressos--is $115. I don't think we'll be back soon.

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