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STYLE / RESTAURANTS

Italian, After a Fashion

February 23, 1997|S. Irene Virbila

From the moment it reopened two months ago, the mondrian became the rendezvous of choice for the fashion and film crowds, diehard trendoids and the casually curious intent on seeing firsthand the hotel's startling transformation. The redesign is whimsical, a bit impractical but full of fun, with enough shifts of scale and perspective to make you feel like Alice in Wonderland. Two immense mahogany doors, the hotel's only "signage," are set like free-standing sculptures in front of the drive. Inside, the wide-open lobby looks like a white stage set just waiting for the hyper-stylish to stroll across and take a seat on the large tree trunk bench or one of the mismatched chairs draped in tasseled shawls.

French designer Philippe Starck--who also decorated the hip Delano in Miami, among others of New York hotelier Ian Schrager's empire--has played some enchanting tricks with light here at Schrager's Mondrian. A filigreed carpet of light stretches across the foyer, from the elevators and out the front door. Projections of the letters W and M mark the respective restrooms, each coyly furnished with a chalkboard and a supply of colored chalk. And rows of votive candles snake down the lobby bar's centerpiece, a 40-foot-long alabaster table where guests can gather and perch on metal and twig stools.

No small attraction either is Coco Pazzo Los Angeles, the Mondrian's high-profile, high-priced Italian restaurant. On a Saturday night, when we arrive for dinner, there's a velvet rope across the hotel entrance and a crowd pressed against it. "Only hotel guests and people with reservations for dinner can come in," proclaims a burly employee with a clipboard. When we get close enough to give our name, we're escorted inside as he calls out, "Coco Pazzo! Coco

Pazzo!" to clear the way.

The restaurant, which occupies a long, narrow space with a spectacular view at its far end, is unabashedly glamorous. With gray wainscoting and a low, slanted roof, it's reminiscent of a whitewashed New England beach cottage. The art is a series of black-and-white photos. Chairs are slip covered in sumptuous white leather with a sexy slash of zipper down the back.

The outdoor dining terrace, tables set beneath an allee of graceful ficus trees in oversized flower pots, is sure to be the most coveted reservation come warmer weather. Flowering plants perfume the air, and wine bottles with their bottoms cut out and little lights inside are strung through the trees.

The fourth Coco Pazzo ("crazy chef") from Tuscan-born New York restaurateur Pino Luongo, Coco Pazzo comes with New York attitude as well: The dining room is roped off behind the hostess. It's difficult to land a reservation. And when you call, the voice on the other end may sound more pleased than regretful when you can't get in till 10 p.m. Or sometime next week.

Despite tables that are hard-to-get, however, few of this Coco Pazzo's dishes make much of an impression. Over several meals, I didn't eat anything that would prompt me to call friends and rush back, especially at these prices. If you order carefully, though, you shouldn't be too disappointed.

For appetizers, oval slices of "homemade" mozzarella taste milky and fresh and are accompanied by delightfully crunchy giardinera of pink and white pearl onions and roasted peppers marinated in vinegar. The cannellini bean soup, flavored with prosciutto and laced with whole beans, is earthy and delicious. There's also a nice salad of pale artichokes scented with marjoram and topped with shavings of good Parmesan cheese.

Ever-fashionable tuna tartare as it's made here is a dish you'll either love or hate. It's layered with a vinegary eggplant relish that overwhelms the delicate raw tuna. Beef carpaccio is paper-thin slices of excellent raw beef. But garnishing it with a topknot of spaghetti squash doused with truffle oil is a terrible idea. So is splashing the powerfully aromatic oil over the otherwise appealing flat round of foccacia stuffed with robiola cheese.

Happily, someone in the kitchen has a sure hand with pasta. It's expertly prepared whenever I order it. Spaghetti tossed with rape, or bitter broccoli greens, that's been cooked with a little garlic and oil is a dish from the south of Italy that deserves to be better known. Another good choice is the handmade garganelli, squares of pasta rolled on the diagonal to form tubes, sauced with nuggets of rich butternut squash and sauteed chanterelle and shiitake mushrooms. Risotto, a different one each night, is noteworthy, too: My salmon risotto is superb, each grain of aldente rice bathed in fragrant broth.

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