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Le Petit Four Offers Feasts and Famine


I had been meaning to visit Le Petit Four since it moved to the Sunset Plaza--about four years ago. I finally took a friend and walked in early one weeknight. We sat at a table half inside, half on the patio and right next to a family of tourists. While the mother and daughters addressed their steaks with gusto, the boy stared with unabashed longing at the waitresses, who do indeed look as if they had just stepped out of a Calvin Klein ad.

We drank sparkling water and dredged French bread in pale, herbed olive oil while we read the menus. I cannot imagine that the chef here, Philippe Bohlander, is ever bored. A permanent menu offers classic Franco-Italian bistro food: omelets and pizza, pastas and steak au poivre. Then, every day, there is a page of specials listing 30 or more appetizers and entrees. This specials menu is rampantly Californian, with everything from shrimp gyozas and risotto cakes to foie gras and fish-with-fruit.

The tables around us were filled with the usual Sunset Plaza crowd. We saw a lot of Euro-glam and surgical grooming, expensive eye wear and the perfection of youth. We ate soup, a smooth and unusual carrot-tarragon puree, and a delicious quenching gazpacho, blended then flecked with finely chopped tomato, peppers and onion. Tuna tartar on minced fennel came with toast points, tapenade and big, fat caper berries: a good plate to nibble at, certainly a sufficient appetizer for two.

My friend had sauteed Chilean sea bass, a fluffy, cloud-like fish with a delicate, golden crust and a halo of gingery papaya salsa: We loved it. I had terrific classic lamb chops, encrusted with rosemary, and served with heavenly, lightly herbed pommes frites. For dessert, we shared a fruit "gratin," fresh berries and sliced oranges smothered in cream custard and sealed with glassy, melted sugar: It was like an enormous, flat creme bru^lee, and impossible not to finish. In fact, the entire meal was so good, we left stunned, regretting every day in those four years we hadn't bothered to come.

The meal was so good in fact, I hardly noticed that the service wasn't. We'd been in no hurry. We had plenty of food. An extra table butted up against ours, and we slid our empty plates onto it when we'd grown sick of looking at them.

During my next visit, with three friends for dinner, the food was again very good, if not as stunning as before. We loved a simple asparagus vinaigrette and a Vietnamese spring roll wrapped with mint in Boston lettuce. White Alaskan salmon was subtle and sweet, and a rich, complex Mediterranean fish soup with saffron-tinted rouille grew more interesting with every mouthful. I would not order the mixed grill again, with its tough duck breast and a mountain of starchy, undercooked risotto, but the classic pepper steak was excellent.

More obvious service glitches occurred at this meal: Our salads were served with our entrees, for example, and our waitress remained invisible for lengthy stretches of time. Still, we sat on the patio and ate and talked for hours, which is what people seem to do at Le Petit Four, where the drum beats out a slower, European cadence. We lingered long over desserts: buttery fruit tarts and an airy bittersweet chocolate mousse. This was great fun, we agreed. How often do you go out for an evening and feel as if you've gone to another continent?

A third visit, this time for lunch, was all about horrific service. You would have to be a well-heeled slacker to manage multiple courses midday at Le Petit Four: It took us two full hours and a certain amount of pleading (may we please see menus, would you please find a waitress to take our orders, etc.) just to eat one course and pay our bill. Penne with spinach, olives and sun-dried tomatoes packed wallops of flavor, but my omelet, ordered soft, was rubbery. A thin swordfish steak with a huge disc of dijon/green peppercorn butter provided too little too late. My friends who came to lunch left hating the place.

I have fond memories to fall back on. But I won't venture back without a huge fund of patience and hours to kill.

* Le Petit Four, 8654 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (310) 652-3863. Open seven days for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Beer and wine served. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $32-$85.

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