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Style / Restaurants : A Terrace For All Seasons

November 26, 1995

I'd been so enamored of breakfast at the Bel-Air that lunch at the fabled hotel never crossed my mind until very recently. Now I'm a convert. Because eating on the broad terrace overlooking the garden, even in fall, is one of L.A.'s best outdoor dining experiences. Except for a table of matrons who look as if they've just come from a group appointment at the hairdresser, everyone wants to be outside, where the sun filters through an arbor of fuchsia bougainvillea and a breeze gently ruffles the tablecloth.

An afternoon meal here is a class act that starts with warm, crackling crisp thyme-scented rolls and slices of rustic olive-studded bread from La Brea Bakery. Cobb salad, tossed at the table, is just right: crisp ribbons of Romaine, nuggets of ripe avocado and diced ripe tomato, good smoky bacon and chunks of moist chicken, all judiciously dressed. And a refreshing little salad of smoked trout comes with delicate lettuces, pink grapefruit and avocado.

When it comes to BLTs, I'm usually a purist, but I make an exception for the Bel-Air's toasted lobster sandwich--made with lobster that tastes like lobster, thick crunchy bacon, juicy tomato and a fine mayonnaise. That said, though, one day I choose a special salmon club on toasted rye. Bingo!--the perfectly cooked filet spread with a heady dill mayonnaise makes an irresistible sandwich. Also worth trying is a plate of fluffy mashed potatoes and pan-seared scallops crowned with sevruga caviar in a delicate Chardonnay-chive sauce. Under "chef's suggestions" on the left-hand side of the menu, I find a wonderful chicken in a smoky chipotle chile sauce chock-full of corn, peppers and ochre chanterelles.

When I return for dinner one night in October, the maitre d' asks, "Inside or out?" We peer into the sedate peach and beige dining room, a little skeptical about whether it could possibly measure up to the terrace. But won't it be cold outdoors? we ask. "The floor is heated, Madame." Well, then, no question--we'll sit outside.

Settling into one of the semicircular alcoves with a view of the velvety lawn and the tree-shrouded pond is definitely preferable to being inside. We take off our shoes for a minute, wiggle our toes on the warm flagstone floor and enjoy the night air. The waiter pours Champagne, we open our menus and soft chamber music--Mozart--begins to play. The couple across the way begin to hold hands. A large table of kids with their parents and a nanny in pink erupts in giggles.

The Bel-Air's chef, British-born Gary Clauson, is classically trained and very able. Under his direction, the kitchen is turning out sometimes stunning, sometimes overly mannered California-French cooking. For dinner, instead of the ubiquitous tuna tartare appetizer, Clauson offers a trio of pristine fish tartares: pale, translucent sea bass, a chunkier salmon topped with plump salmon eggs and cubed dark red tuna garnished with sevruga. Seared foie gras set atop a single scallop, surrounded by droplets of Pinot Noir-beet jus , is superb, as is the sumptuous fricassee of scallops, slender asparagus and fresh morels in a Riesling and cream sauce. And Clauson's special of fine-textured white rose potatoes, draped with satiny smoked salmon and garnished with horseradish sauce and pickled pink shallots, is a terrific variation on the potato and smoked salmon theme.

As a main course, lovely little veal medallions are played against an exemplary crayfish risotto. Peppered filet of Angus beef comes out looking like one of the Magi's gifts, piled high with horseradish potatoes that have a good kick to them, the whole structure crowned with a lacy potato waffle. A generous portion of baby rack of lamb is lightly scented with ginger, perfectly cooked and served with a delicious dried fig couscous. I'm impressed.

When I come back in November, Clauson has an entirely new menu for the season. This time, veal appears as a chop with Santa Barbara prawns and a wild mushroom risotto. The Angus beef is now topped with a golden potato parasol, a smear of Stilton cheese and the same spunky mashed potatoes, all encircled by puckery pickled walnuts. Rosy slices of lamb are lined up on a wheel of couscous layered with vegetables and fig and mashed potato tucked in the middle. But this fussier presentation is not nearly as good as the more focused rack of lamb.

The kitchen is sometimes maddeningly slow; it takes longer to arrange some of the plates than to cook them, I'm sure. And the food can be inconsistent. When dishes disappoint, it's usually because more attention is paid to how they look than how they taste. Like a special of two massive slabs of rare tuna, with boulders of feta cheese, a tangle of spaghetti squash, olives and tiny cherry tomatoes and, oh, yes, a couple of prawns strewn around: None of it makes sense together.

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