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Eats | FIRST IMPRESSIONS

With an Ambitious Italian Menu, Cicada Moves to Take Rex's Place

June 19, 1997|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

Rex Il Ristorante the late Mauro Vincenti's elegant and truly sophisticated Italian restaurant, is a hard act to follow.

I can't help remembering how glamorous it felt when it opened in 1981 in the Art Deco Oviatt Building, when the Veuve Clicquot and Cristal flowed, when gorgeously clad women swanned down the staircase, and Vincenti plied L.A. foodies with sublime contemporary Italian cooking. The ebullient, Roman-born restaurateur created an atmosphere that was part salon, part restaurant and even at the end last year, when the place could have used a little freshening up, whenever he was there at least, Rex had a kind of faded glamour. And dreamy, thoroughly Italian food.

At her first restaurant, Cicada, in West Hollywood, Stephanie Taupin hosted an eclectic crowd drawn mostly from the music industry, who came more for the scene than the food. Now she's moved Cicada downtown and into the former Rex space. Like Wolfgang Puck with the new Spago Beverly Hills, she's taken the opportunity to create a different kind of restaurant. She's glitzed up the wood-lined dining room, gilded the high ceiling, installed booths with high, curved backs in the middle of the room and tables along the mezzanine.

The Italian menu is much more ambitious than the original Cicada, but one with no real personality, a patchwork of borrowed ideas executed with mixed success. The best thing I had was lamb chops with fresh basil.

Weekday lunch may turn out to be a better bet. The menu features lighter salads (the requisite Caesar, insalata tricolore--radicchio, endive and arugula--and a fennel and blood orange version from southern Italy), pastas and a handful of secondi or main courses. And the prices are a little less.

Taupin is a wonderful hostess, comfortable with her guests, trying hard to please. But at this point, which admittedly is very early, the kitchen is going to need some help if Cicada is ever going to fill Rex's shoes.

BE THERE

Cicada Restaurant & Bar, 617 S. Olive St., Los Angeles; (213) 655-5559. Open Monday through Friday for lunch; Wednesday through Saturday for dinner. Major credit cards accepted. Valet parking. At dinner, antipasta and salads $7 to $16, pastas $12 to $16, main courses $22 to $26. Lunch is less expensive.

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