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Good Evening, Vietnam

March 16, 1997|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Mention Indochine to the bicoastal set and the name evokes not the 1992 French film starring Catherine Deneuve but the trendy New York restaurant that first put Vietnamese cuisine in a stylish, upscale setting. Three months ago, an L.A. branch opened in the Monkey Bar's old quarters at the corner of Beverly and Harper. Like the New York venue, it is filled with the lean, the beautiful and the hungry. And no wonder. Vietnam's fresh, light cooking accommodates everyone--from models who just want to pick at a salad or plate of steamed vegetables to enthusiastic eaters who order up a feast of appetizers, main courses and desserts.

The look of the L.A. Indochine, as envisioned by Thomas O'Brien of Aero Studios in New York, is that of a sophisticated supper club. Inside the door is a small bar with a couple of sofas in the shadows (all the better for celebrities desperately seeking camouflage) and a handful of barstools. The dining room is lined with a mural of stylized banana leaves and green leather booths just large enough to seat two to three. Overhead, vintage ceiling fans salvaged from French train cars gently ruffle the giant bird of paradise at the center of the room. Waiters clad in all-black look as if they stepped from the pages of a fashion photographer's book, but they also know how to wait tables--a welcome relief.

The small menu, which emphasizes seafood and poultry, is well-thought-out and unfussily presented. The food in New York was much better than I expected, given how much of a scene the place was a dozen years ago. I can say the same here. Perhaps because co-owner Huy Chi Le, a Vietnamese immigrant who started out busing tables at the original Indochine, oversees this kitchen with sister Phung Le.

For starters, try the delightful trio of beautifully fried shrimp stuffed with shiitake mushrooms and asparagus. Cha gio, fried spring rolls filled with chicken, bean sprouts and other vegetables, are wonderful, too. Wrap them in cool lettuce, tuck in a few fresh herbs and dip them in a sprightly nuoc cham made with fish sauce, lime juice, vinegar and sugar. Just as good are the delicate goi cuon, bright pink shrimp, shredded chicken, rice vermicelli, mint and bean sprouts in translucent rice paper. An excellent salad of seared rare beef, thinly sliced and piled on lettuce in a lemongrass-scented sauce spiked with red pepper, is hot and cool at the same time.

Though a bowl of pho disappoints because the oxtail broth is both tepid and washed out, the fish soup, loaded with shrimp, scallops and fish and swirled with coconut milk and rice vermicelli, is soothing.

One of my favorites is the grilled marinated trout stuffed with powerfully fragrant Asian basil, the skin slightly charred, the flesh moist and perfumed with the purple basil. And salmon is terrific, crisp on top yet translucent at the center and set on a bed of braised red cabbage.

Four huge grilled prawns, heads on, look fantastic lined up on an emerald banana leaf. They're accompanied by soft lettuce, strands of carrot, slices of cucumber and sprigs of mint and basil. But after peeling the prawns, discarding their heads and bundling them up with herbs and lettuce, I find that they're overcooked. Boned roasted duck, however, is impeccable, its thick slices of rich, moist flesh redolent of ginger.

The prettiest dish is steamed seasonal vegetables. Inside a shiny banana leaf folded like a purse and secured with a toothpick is an entrancing melange of carrots, zucchini, sweet peppers, baby corn and more.

The best dessert is banana cloaked in sticky rice steamed in a banana leaf folded into a box. Sorbets in tropical flavors lend a refreshing note.

Serving dinner only, Indochine stays open late. If you arrive at 8, the room may be only half-filled, a bonus for anyone intent on a quiet conversation. Whatever the hour, though, Indochine proves that trendy doesn't always mean indifferent food and haughty service.

INDOCHINE

CUISINE: Vietnamese. AMBIENCE: Glamorous with green leather booths, gorgeous waiters and star-struck crowd. BEST DISHES: shrimp with shiitakes and asparagus, fried spring rolls, grilled trout, roast duck with ginger. WINE PICK: 1995 Paul Cotat Sancerre, Loire Valley. FACTS: 8225 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 655-4777. Dinner till midnight Monday through Saturday, till 11 p.m. Sunday. Dinner for two, food only, $45 to $70. Valet parking.

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