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STYLE / RESTAURANTS

A Well-Kept Secret Garden

July 28, 1996|S. IRENE VIRBILA

A few weeks ago, a well-intentioned but absent-minded friend called with a tip about a new French cafe in Hollywood she'd been invited to for lunch. She raved about its garden, heady with the scents of rosemary, sage and lavender. She mentioned its flat goat cheese omelette, served with golden coins of potato and a lovely little mesclun salad. The whole experience, she told my answering machine, felt very much like France. "It's called Cafe Dou or Du Cafe or Deux Cafes or something like that. I think it was on Hollywood Boulevard around Las Palmas," she announced airily, then hung up and disappeared on vacation.

I checked directory assistance with no success. I cruised down Hollywood Boulevard trying to spot the place. Finally, I thought to put "Les" in front of "Deux Cafes," redialed information and got the phone number.

Les Deux Cafes turns out to be a beguiling fantasy of the South of France in the middle of a down-at-the-heels Hollywood block. There's no sign, just a red arrow pointing out parking on Las Palmas and a steel door in the corner of a guarded lot. Inside the golden stone and brick walls, the restaurant could be the Cte d'Azur on a summer's night. A glamorous crowd perches at the small mosaic bar. Candle-lit tables are set around a still-unfinished fountain, beneath an olive tree and a flowering magnolia. White umbrellas and wrought-iron garden chairs with striped cushions complete the mise en scene.

This is, however, not a restaurant for everybody. Particularly type-A personalities or anyone in a rush. The leather and vinyl-clad waitresses, who could double as members of a French motorcycle gang, can be inattentive. The food sometimes takes forever. But there's always conversation to bridge the gap. And with blue sky or a silvery moon overhead, you don't mind that service is lax.

When it does come, Les Deux Cafes' food is surprisingly good and carefully made. The one-page, handwritten menu changes frequently. On my visits, there's a rich rabbit pte ribboned with fat, a beautiful salad of sliced red and gold beets on greens garnished with red onion and a simple plate of thin asparagus in a sharp vinaigrette. The soup is a swirl of carrot and pea purees. A special of softly scrambled eggs with truffles disappoints only because the summer truffles taste like cardboard; the eggs are delicious. A creamy hunk of Teleme cheese makes a first course with nicely dressed baby greens.

The tender garlic baked squid, with grilled baby eggplant, yellow tomatoes and good a 3/4oli, is the best dish one night. Both the sweetbreads with morels and asparagus in a light Madeira sauce and the skillet-roasted salmon with red potatoes and sauteed spinach are exemplary. Filet mignon is nicely cooked and served with a Ctes du Rhne reduction, a thatch of haricots verts and a side of creamy potatoes au gratin. Only the pan-seared duck breast could be more flavorful.

Unfortunately, the short wine list exhibits the French tendency to omit vintage years and names of producers and set prices as high as the market will bear. Veuve Clicquot brut, at $65, is about as pricey as I've ever seen it. If you want to sip Cristal, it will cost you $148. The Tavel is not a good one; the Brouilly, however, is decent enough for a village Beaujolais at $24. They do have old wines, but some whites are most likely over the hill. A 1983 Condrieu from Georges Vernay? That's 13 years old now. So beware.

Desserts are suited to the season: a bowl of strawberries bathed in Bandol or a rich, smooth pot de creme with pale Queen Anne cherries. And cherry clafoutis, the tender batter-pudding studded with whole cherries, comes warm and accompanied by vanilla bean ice cream.

The owner of this eccentric restaurant is former designer Michele Lamy, previously of Cafe des Artistes. Come fall and winter, when she renovates the transplanted two-story Craftsman house in front of the garden, a real fixer-upper with slits of sky showing through the roof, the restaurant will truly be two cafes. And Les Deux Cafes habitues will have the option of dining inside as well.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

LES DEUX CAFES

CUISINE: French. AMBIENCE: Romantic walled garden planted with fragrant herbs, vines and trees. BEST DISHES: beet salad, garlic baked squid, skillet-roasted salmon, sweetbreads with morels and asparagus, cherry clafoutis. WINE: Cha^teau de la Chaize Brouilly, 1994. FACTS: 1638 N. Las Palmas Ave., Hollywood; (213) 465-0509. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Closed Monday night. Dinner for two, food only, $45 to $80. Parking in guarded lot, $2.

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