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SoCal Style: Restaurants

Cicada's New Tune

September 14, 1997|S. IRENE VIRBILA

When the late Mauro Vincenti fell in love with a former haberdashery in the Oviatt Building downtown, once the city's most elegant, he meticulously restored the dramatic Art Deco room to create one of Los Angeles' grandest restaurant spaces. Rex Il Ristorante is now gone. In its place is a new, improved Cicada, the casual Italian restaurant Stephanie Taupin owned in West Hollywood for five years. It's easy to see why the former maitre d' at Le Dome fell for the space, too: There's nothing like it. Its drawback, though, is its location. Taupin, wife of lyricist Bernie Taupin, is gambling that the music and industry crowd that thronged to her original place will follow her downtown.

Admittedly, Rex is a hard act to follow. But Taupin and L.A. designer Nicolas Pasquale Valle have livened up the cavernous dining room with a gold-leaf ceiling. Brighter lights highlight the capitals of the soaring pillars with their beautiful original carved-angel motif--for the City of Angels. Curved, high-sided leather booths fit together in the shape of a cloverleaf for intimacy. The mezzanine is set with tables, backed by Valle's stylized Italian landscape murals in colors that are startlingly bold in this setting. For the bar upstairs, where a pianist still plays, Valle designed demure beige chenille sofas and brown leather club chairs edged in brass studs.

Cicada's menu has undergone a transformation, too. The food at the old place was basic California Italian. For the new restaurant, Taupin went to Italy to bring back 26-year-old Andrea Tranchero, who worked at Sadler in Milan. Though Tranchero's first experience cooking in America got off to a wobbly start--everything is disconcertingly different here, from the products and kitchen culture to diners' palates--he's now turning out pleasant, well-crafted Italian cuisine. Rex it is not. Nor is it meant to be. Still, this contemporary Italian menu is far more ambitious than Cicada's old one.

At the beginning of the meal, Tranchero sends out a stuzzichino, or appetite teaser, maybe a small portion of seafood salad to share or a little caprino, a tender goat cheese, drizzled with truffle oil and showered with ribbons of basil. Among the first courses is a delicately poached salmon with small, juicy mussels and clams embellished with emerald parsley oil. It's lovely with a glass of Pieropan's single-vineyard Soave Classico. I also recommend the salad of velvety, lightly smoked swordfish and sturgeon enhanced by the slight bitterness of Belgian endive and pink grapefruit segments in a citrus sauce. And if, by chance, soft-shell crabs are offered as a special, order them: They're sauteed in olive oil and as light as the best tempura.

Curiously, there aren't many pasta dishes I want to order. I pass on shrimp ravioli in a curry sauce and hesitate when pondering whole-grain tagliatelle with duck breast, wild mushrooms and crispy leeks because of the white truffle oil, a trendy ingredient that sells dishes on its presence alone. In fact, the tagliatelle is delicious, bearing only a trace of the overpowering oil. I also like the chef's supple goat cheese ravioli, filled with a subtly tangy cheese and sauced only in brown butter, and his pale corn flour gnocchi, cloaked in fontina cheese, cream and butter infused with fresh thyme. His two risotto dishes, however, are as eccentric as they come. I didn't try the frog legs and herb version, but an intriguing-sounding red cabbage, crab and mint risotto tastes too strongly of mint and is so gummy with cheese that it's difficult to find any flavor of crab.

Service is generally quite good, with one amusing quirk. Our Italian waiter repeats everything we order in Italian. Swordfish? Pesce di spada, he announces, giving an Italian lesson at the same time. While our table is deep in conversation, however, he continues pouring mineral water without asking if we would like more. At the end of the evening, we're billed $18 for three bottles of Panna.

Instead of grilling branzino, Tranchero bakes the Mediterranean fish and naps the filet in a graceful white wine and rosemary sauce. But turbot--scaloppa di rombo, murmurs the waiter--is too salty. Not to worry, there's enough veal chop for at least two of us. Three fingers thick, it's cooked to a true medium rare and blanketed in melted scamorza cheese, which gives the veal a deliciously smoky edge. Eat quickly, though, because the cheese turns rubbery as it cools. Breast of guinea fowl (a bird a bit smaller than a chicken but with a much more distinctive taste) is stuffed with fresh black summer truffles that don't have much flavor; even if they did, though, no one would be able to tell because this dish is oversalted, too. Sadly, creamy veal sweetbreads are doused in so much sweet balsamic vinegar that none of us can finish them.

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