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Style / RESTAURANTS : Caviar by Candlelight

February 25, 1996|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Walking into the formal restaurant of the Wyndham Bel Age Hotel in West Hollywood, we don't know quite what to expect, but certainly not this: a romantically lit room with extravagant flower arrangements, gilt-framed oil paintings and polished silver glinting in the dark. The maitre d' whisks us past an ornate mahogany cart filled with pretty desserts, including a domed charlotte russe with the restaurant's name, Diaghilev, painted in the sauce. The dining room feels like it's from another era, another place. Yet Diaghilev's Franco-Russian food is lighter and more contemporary than anything you'd be served in Moscow or St. Petersburg.

The service here is astonishing for Los Angeles, with nearly half a dozen waiters attending our party alone. It takes two to pull out the heavy table so that two of us can slip onto the banquette, side by side, and they do it without toppling the red rose balanced in a silver bud vase. The salt and pepper shakers and wine coaster are chased silver. Mirrors and etched glass reflect soft candlelight.

A third waiter appears, bearing heavy cut-glass decanters foggy with cold. Would we like to sample the house flavored vodkas--tea, green peppercorn, lime or orange? To be polite, we try all four strong-tasting spirits, the least objectionable of which is the orange. Frankly, I'd much prefer a good shot of plain iced Stolichnaya. (I also wish I hadn't been so polite; each vodka adds $6 to our bill.)

Yet another waiter, this one in a snowy side-buttoned Cossack shirt, passes out crusty Russian rye, French or walnut bread with silver tongs. The tuxedoed head waiter returns, explaining that although there are no specials tonight, "everything is prepared from scratch with the freshest ingredients. I can recommend everything." As we order, he murmurs, "Superb," "Excellent choice, madame" and "Splendid."

First courses include a delicious cold yellow beet soup, garnished with spears of endive and a quail's egg; superlative smoked salmon and silky whitefish with Russian salad, which is cubes of potato cloaked in a graceful mayonnaise; and delicate cabbage rolls with a filling of minced beef, wild rice and herbs. Pelmeni are plump ravioli-like dumplings of sumptuous duck and veal forcemeat. The best starter may be the zakuski, an assortment that includes most of the above. And there's caviar, of course: An ounce of beluga, osetra or sevruga from the Caspian sea comes with miniature buckwheat blinis and all the proper accompaniments: finely diced red onion, chopped egg yolk and egg white, sour cream, toast points.

Next to us, an attractive woman, her silver hair swept into a chignon, lifts an eyebrow as the waiter presents three eggshells in a nest of alfalfa sprouts. It is pretty silly-looking. Inside the shells are ineffably creamy whipped eggs finished with sevruga caviar--not quite as good as L'Orangerie's but still a wonderfully opulent first course. I know because I tried it another night.

Plates at Diaghilev are presented under silver cloches topped with a silver rosebud. And several entrees are worth the fuss: the velvety filet of sturgeon in a light, lemony sauce strewn with caviar; a tender chicken Kiev stuffed with morel mushrooms and truffles; the skewer of venison, grilled rare, in a flavorful red wine sauce. Kulibiaka, the renowned Russian dish of salmon in puff pastry, is a bit dull--the sturgeon mousse on the salmon is rubbery; the pastry, undercooked. But there's a very decent veal chop, cut off the bone and accompanied by wild mushrooms and potato gaufrettes. And duck with shows a rare restraint, its honey Calvados jus barely sweet, served on a bed of fabulous thick-cut braised red cabbage.

Just before 9, the pianist reappears and a young Russian actress, Louiza Mosendz, begins to sing. We're mesmerized by her smoky, soulful voice, by the Russian songs of longing from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The music adds something very special to the evening.

Now that I'm familiar with the menu here, I've decided what I'll order on my next visit--that is, if some long-lost and very rich uncle materializes to treat me: blinis, caviar, plus a bottle of Krug Grande Cuvee. And I'm sure that, if I ask, I can get my blinis dripping with butter, just the way the Russian aristocracy ate them.



CUISINE: Franco-Russian. AMBIENCE: Old World elegance and service in a hotel dining room. BEST DISHES: Cold yellow borscht, pelmeni, zakuski, blinis and caviar, chicken Kiev, grilled venison. WINE PICKS: Kistler Chardonnay, Sonoma, 1994; Cline Mourvedre, Contra Costa, 1989. FACTS: Wyndham Bel Age Hotel, 1020 N. San Vicente Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 854-1111. Dinner only. Closed Sunday and Monday. Dinner for two, food only, $76 to $165. Caviar, $40 to $99. Corkage $10. Valet parking.

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