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EATS: Restaurant Reviews and News | RESTAURANT REVIEW

A Little Taste of Paris

Cafe emphasizes continental elegance--even providing a private smoking club--but the menu is inconsistent.

March 06, 1997|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As a teenager, I once house-sat an apartment right next to Le Coupe-Chou, a 200-year-old Paris restaurant noted for its luxurious after-dinner smoking room. How elegant and civilized it all looked, the men in smoking jackets, the women in evening wear, everybody reclining on period furniture with their cigars and brandy snifters in hand.

Cafe Fume attempts to create the same effect in a Tarzana mini-mall, Capri Plaza. Its premise is simple and politically incorrect. The front of the house is a moodily elegant Continental dining room. The rear, located behind a glass door, is a stylish private club complete with black leather sofas, a big-screen TV and a climate-controlled cigar room.

It is here that members puff away on their Ashton, Arturo Fuentes and Opus X cigars, which they may keep at the club, locked in personal humidor drawers. Some of these cigars, such as the Opus X, can cost more than $35 apiece.

Nonmembers are consigned to the cafe's dining room, an attractively decorated area, which makes the most of its limited space. The walls are white stucco with blond wood wainscoting, a nice contrast to the red tablecloths and fresh orchids that grace the tables.

The French provincial chairs may remind you of the final scene of "2001: A Space Odyssey." A pianist tickles the ivories as you dine, mixing "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes " and jazzy Gershwin tunes.

Le Coupe-Chou seems oceans away when the food comes out, however. A few dishes, like the nicely textured pa^te maison and a rustic sort of coq au vin, are quite good, though their bistro style does not particularly fit the formal Continental concept. But many other dishes may disappoint.

For instance, the menu advertises a table-side Caesar (minimum two people), but when we ordered it, the waiter brought us two salads made in the kitchen--both dry and overloaded with cheese. Then he disobligingly added too much cracked pepper before we could stop him.

Mou^les gratinees come in a flavorful nage of garlic and white wine, but unfortunately the mussels are the big, rubbery, insipid northern California variety, rather than delicious Santa Barbara or Prince Edward Island mussels. Carpaccio a la Francaise uses sliced raw filet mignon, and the quality of the meat is excellent, but it's a rather dry dish, garnished only with lemon, capers and a hint of Dijon mustard. No complaints about the pa^te maison (made from goose and duck), served with good mesclun greens mixed with a fine mustard vinaigrette.

Dinners come with a soup or salad course, and you can't lose here. The salads are fresh and well put together, and the soups, such as a classic French onion soup and a creamy, well-stocked seafood chowder, are among the best dishes.

But the entrees are inconsistent. Sea bass au Champagne is topped with bell peppers and champagne sauce, but neither fish nor sauce has much flavor. Lamb chops are broiled with mixed herbs and served with mint jelly, but the meat is oddly soggy, as if it had been poached rather than grilled.

I didn't mind the sauteed sand dabs available on special one evening, even if the chef did get a bit carried away with the lemon juice and capers. (I did mind discovering at check time that it cost $19.95, much more than any regular entree.) And the coq au vin is very correct, the meat glazed by a terrific red wine sauce full of pearl onions and button mushrooms.

The best desserts are tiny round tarts, perhaps even smaller than those you see in the windows of pa^tisseries in France. The especially wonderful raspberry tart has a buttery crust, a Kirsch-perfumed custard layer and an abundance of fresh berries. Another good choice is the very lemony lemon tart topped with a candied lemon slice.

The waiters are accomplished, but the wine collection is in the process of being revamped and the wine list totally misrepresents what's actually available. They struck out with eight wines in a row that I tried ordering.

Have a brandy instead, and if you ask nicely, the owners will even let you have a postprandial smoke in the back room. If you're a cigar enthusiast, this will be the high spot of the evening.

BE THERE

Cafe Fume is at 19598 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana. Lunch is served from 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; dinner 6-10 p.m. Mon.-Thur., 6-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Closed Sun. Dinner for two is $48-$64. Suggested dishes: pa^te maison, $7; soupe a l'oignon, $4; coq au vin, $15; raspberry tart, $4. Full bar. Parking lot. American Express, MasterCard and Visa. (818) 345-1125.

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