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Fusion Frenzy

May 19, 1996|S. Irene Virbila

The Beverly Prescott, with a suite once decorated by the late, great Jerry Garcia, isn't your typical business hotel. Nor is its dining room your typical hotel restaurant. A few years back, Santa Monica restaurateur Hans Rockenwagner filled the space with his quirky Rox. Then sommelier Sylvie Darr from San Francisco's Zuni Cafe created her own Mediterranean restaurant, Sylvie. And now the South Bay's most visible and energetic team of restaurant owners, Michael Franks and Robert Bell of Chez Melange, the Depot and a handful of other places, are trying their hand with executive chef Michael Shafer's take on fusion cuisine. For their first venture in L.A., they certainly bring a spirit of fun to the table. I only wish I could be as positive about more of the food.

At Pico and Beverwil, the Chez is a relaxing place for drinks and a bite. Be sure to bring an appetite, though: Everything is humongous. The fine T.B.L.T.--a triple-decker B.L.T. layered with turkey and skewered--is gargantuan. So is the Chez Burger with sun-dried-tomato mayonnaise on a homemade onion roll. If you're not careful, you won't have room for the Cappuccino Coupe, an ice cream sundae with fresh strawberries, a not-so-dark chocolate sauce and a dusting of ground espresso beans.

On one of several visits, I bring along an experienced business traveler, someone familiar with hotel food from Atlanta to Juneau. He is floored when he sees the room and menu. "This is incredibly hip for a hotel dining room. Imagine flying in from Kansas City and finding this kind of radical cooking. People will get a hit of California right away," he says, happy with the prices and, later, the portions.

It is a cheerful room, vibrant with light and color. Walls are painted a deep persimmon, and glass lampshades are swirls of jewel tones. Fishtail palms, cane armchairs and banquettes covered in brightly patterned batik give the restaurant and large bar a tropical atmosphere. And on warm days, you can sit outside at a cluster of tables near the pool.

Appetizers include Northwest oysters on the half shell, which come with three sauces, the best of which is a rich miso that marries surprisingly well with the cool, briny Kumamoto and Malpeques. B.L.T. pizza is the best here, made with thick crisped bacon and Roma tomatoes. Pacific Rim Tostadas are four rafts of fried won-ton wrappers bearing rare ahi tuna garnished with finely chopped salsa and striped with wasabi cream. Turkey jalape~no sausage, served with a decent cheese quesadilla, however, resembles a rubbery, spicy hot dog.

For main courses, the kitchen does a creditable job with Blackened Voodoo Salmon (served on mashed potatoes studded with corn) and seared mahi-mahi encrusted with black and white sesame seeds. But Southern fried chicken salad tossed with nuggets of dried-out fried chicken and toasted pecans, the greens weighed down with too much buttermilk ranch dressing, is not an appealing concept.

I come away this time thinking the food is kind of wacky and over the top, but the restaurant is such a good-natured place, the service so earnest, that I can't help but feel benevolent toward the Chez. Still, that goodwill wears thin on subsequent visits.

Thai Dyed Shrimp pizza? OK, we'll try it. Bready dough smeared with achingly sweet Thai barbecue sauce and topped with slivered vegetables, rosy shrimp and crispy wonton noodles is more weirdly awful than whimsical. The steak tartare appetizer is as big as a burger and, come to think of it, could be the burger, uncooked. The triangles of warm toast are nice, but the beef isn't the best. Grilled Portobello mushroom cap is soaked in a burgundy-black wine sauce, with what looks like a cup extra poured over the top. And Buster's Mix--marinated, diced raw tuna drizzled with sharp wasabi cream, sliced raw tuna coated in a cloying sauce and house-cured salmon on flat bread with sweet-hot mustard--is pure overkill: It's impossible to taste the fish through any of the sauces.

I'm hopeful things will look up with the main courses. The spicy, fine-textured Cajun meatloaf is appealing enough for a couple of bites, and the "mashers" served with it are dense and good. But tasteless veal paillard (nicely cooked, mind you) is served atop a bowl of linguine that tastes as if it's been tossed in a bottle of straight lemon juice. Squiggly Asian noodles are more like expensive ramen, with everything sitting in a soupy sweet sauce. And the Big Cat Grill--grilled lamb chop, chicken breast and a little filet mignon--has been doused in another industrial-strength wine sauce, this one strewn with soggy mushrooms.

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