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Rendezvous on Melrose

November 10, 1996|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Years ago, while driving from Alsace to Paris, a bad storm left me stranded in the provincial town of Nancy for the night. Wet and miserable, I glimpsed a welcome vision through the pouring rain: a glittering Art Nouveau bistro with waiters in long white aprons and rows of cozy tables. As soon as I secured a room, I headed straight for that inviting restaurant. Here was life, warmth, a bottle of Raveneau's steely Chablis, a platter of belon oysters and a pair of lambchops with a potato gratin. In short, a little corner of heaven.

It can feel something like that when you first walk into Le Chardonnay. On the other side of the frosted-glass doors is a lovingly constructed fantasy of turn-of-the-century France. Inspired by the ravishing Art Nouveau restaurant Vagenende on Boulevard Saint Germain in Paris, Le Chardonnay is undeniably romantic, with its mirrored walls, ornate tile work and dark wood. The soft, pearly light flatters. Wineglasses sparkle. Jewels twinkle. But just out the window, believe it or not, is Melrose Avenue.

Recently, I found myself entranced by a dinner party in the private dining room. Through the glass and potted palm, I could see a dozen formally attired guests gathering around a long table set with a ribbon of flowers and flickering candles. Then owner and maitre d' Robert Bigonnet appeared at my elbow, whisking our party to a table halfway down the long dining room. In his half-glasses and beautifully cut suits, he is the consummate host, greeting everyone as warmly as he would a long-lost friend.

On the far side of the dining room is a gleaming rotisserie backed with tiles, where chickens turn over an open fire as the aroma of wood smoke and succulent poultry wafts over the tables. And somehow you find yourself looking at the menu with renewed interest. The food is basically French with a soupcon of California touches, which means more greens, more salads and more vegetables than you'd normally see on a menu in France. Alas, Le Chardonnay does not have oysters. Or mussels. Or a plateau de fruits de mer. But it does have escargots--petits gris de Californie, in fact--less rubbery than most snails, showered with flat-leaf parsley and garlic. The kitchen also serves a terrine of pheasant, a fine-textured mosaic of tan and pink, ribboned with fat, though it's rather pallid in taste. The best first course may be the Sonoma duck foie gras sauteed with sweet apples. And while the monkfish, artichoke and asparagus salad could be more artfully presented, it tastes just fine. Lobster bisque, however, is marred by a strange metallic taste, and dense, dry crab cakes are oddly paired with a whole-grain mustard sauce that seems left over from another dish.

Waiters are either the genuine French article or else do a pretty good imitation thereof. But sometimes it's hard to get their attention. One moment, your waiter is dashing off to another table; a minute later, he's back again, but forgets to pour your wine or neglects to describe the nightly specials.

Main courses could also use some improvement, but there is that lovely rotisserie chicken, served in its juices with good frites. Turkey sausages are a surprise. Instead of the dry, overly lean links I envision, they are blackened on the grill, bursting with juices and wonderful with sauteed apple wedges, decent mashed potatoes and a spunky mustard sauce. Calves' liver, two thick pieces cooked medium-rare and served with golden caramelized onions, turns out to be a good choice, too. And that rustic country dish daube de boeuf, big chunks of beef braised in a robust red wine, is everything it should be. Another quibble: The steak part of steak frites is supposed to be a flavorful, chewy cut of meat. Using filet mignon--too refined and rarely very tasty--misses the point.

I've had good luck with some of Le Chardonnay's specials. One night, a heap of chanterelle, shiitake and brown mushrooms perfumed with garlic makes a delicious first course. Another night, a beautifully grilled slab of escolar is the best dish of the evening. It arrives in a piquant mustard sauce, a nice counterpoint to the firm, white-fleshed fish, which remains slightly smoky from the grill.

When it comes to wine, the restaurant's list does a much better job with California selections than the French ones. Le Chardonnay's wines by the glass include a white Zinfandel--now that's a dinosaur--and Bonny Doon's 1990 Vin Gris de Cigare, which is getting up there for a rose. So when in doubt, order Champagne!

Desserts are all familiar French favorites: profiteroles filled with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with chocolate, Tahitian vanilla bean creme bru^lee, a fudgy dark chocolate souffle buried under a drift of confectioners' sugar and golden apple fritters served with a ball of vanilla ice cream. If none of these tempts, you can always opt for the half-bottle of Domaine de Coyeux's opulent Beaumes-de-Venise, a golden dessert wine that comes from the southern Rhone Valley.

Overall, Le Chardonnay's food comes closer to competent but dull cooking at a provincial French hotel restaurant than brilliant bistro fare. So while it may not be the place to add a notch in your foodie belt, it should be valued for its warmth and atmosphere and as a place to spend a pleasant evening conversing quietly with friends.



CUISINE: French. AMBIENCE: Romantic Art Nouveau bistro. BEST DISHES: sauteed mushrooms, rotisserie chicken, turkey sausages, calves' liver with caramelized onions, daube de boeuf, apple fritters. WINE PICK: Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, 1993, Napa Valley. FACTS: 8284 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 655-8880. Closed Sunday and Monday and at lunch Saturday. Dinner for two, food only, $65 to $95. Corkage $10. Valet parking.

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