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Les Deux Cafes'Inside Story

April 26, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA

"Where the hell is it?" grumbles a producer type as he sits in his Jag, peeling off five $1 bills for the parking attendant. At Hollywood's hippest hard-to-find spot, Les Deux Cafes, no sign announces the restaurant and even movie moguls have to park their own cars.

The entrance to this newly reopened French country restaurant is a metal gate in a corner of a parking lot on a nondescript block of Las Palmas Avenue just south of Hollywood Boulevard. Past the herb garden, a path leads to a wondrously civilized outdoor dining space. In this Provenal-inspired retreat planted with olive trees, lavender, sage and star jasmine, tables and chairs are set beneath the stars. A fountain reflects the moon and wispy clouds overhead.

Until recently, that was all there was to Les Deux Cafes. In 1996, owner Michele Lamy had a decrepit 1904 Arts and Crafts bungalow moved onto the front lot. It sat untouched for almost a year and, once renovation began, the garden dining area was closed down. Work dragged on for months, but the result is remarkable for its sense of style and gracious ambience.

A former fashion designer-turned-restaurateur, the French-born Lamy has eccentric and wonderful taste. With designer Paul Fortune, she has managed to pull off Les Deux Cafes' handsome new look beautifully. The outdoor bar and dining area now feature a tiled fireplace and roll-down plastic walls for inclement weather. In the dining room, wood wainscoting the color of dark honey encircles the walls. The kitchen is set off by a black wood grid in the Charles Rennie Mackintosh vein. Tables are tucked into corners, some partitioned for more privacy. The lighting is smart and low-key. But Les Deux Cafes' success is not just about the walls and the lighting. Lamy knows how to create a vibrant and alluring atmosphere. Since she knows practically everybody who comes through the door, the restaurant has the feel of a private club. The minute you walk in, you sense you're somewhere special. At 8, it is half-full; by 9, there's a crush at the door. Because this is the kind of place where you expect to see European cinematographers, aspiring actors and East Coast intellectuals trying their hand at a screenplay, I love to sit with a view of the door and watch people arrive.

If Les Deux Cafes has a drawback, it's the food. I've had some delicious fare here, but not always, and dishes are wildly overpriced. Which is frustrating because I think chef David Wynns' ideas are right on target. I frequently see him at the farmers' market buying what's in season. It's the kitchen's execution that often leaves something to be desired.

For instance, the plate of olives, chilled potato rounds and broccoli and cauliflower florets that's offered at the beginning of a meal here sometimes tastes of the refrigerator. But the bread is good, and butter is cut from a big round on display in the wine room. Two soups--a lovely puree of artichoke, a savory duck broth with shreds of confit and diced winter vegetables--are simple and satisfying.

I also like the warm pillows of oyster in cream and Champagne, and white asparagus in a silky sabayon sauce. A comforting starter for sharing is raclette--white potatoes under a molten coverlet of cheese, with a little cream swirled at the bottom of the dish. Pumpkin ravioli with hazelnuts, though, is marred by a filling that resembles the texture of baby food. And quenelles, fish dumplings that should be light as air, are decidedly earthbound.

One night, I'm thrilled by my skate, classically prepared in brown butter and capers. On another occasion, I'm disappointed with a butterflied fillet of salmon in creme fra 5/8che that's flawed by salty sorrel sauce.

At $30, roast chicken with black truffles under the skin doesn't boast enough good truffles to make it worth your while. The moist, sliced chicken breast cooked in cream and tarragon is a much better choice. I'm impressed that the chef serves rabbit in a country stew with artichokes and good tomatoes; but given the way rabbit is raised in this country, it lacksflavor. What is very tasty is the roast loin of lamb served in its juices with a medley of spring vegetables. There's also a very nice, deliciously cara-melized veal shank and beautifully cooked veal sweetbreads; both, however, come in a reduction that has the consistency of blackstrap molasses.

Desserts are a lovely surprise. There's a gorgeous ruby-red strawberry tart, a warm apple galette on buttery puff pastry and a textbook creme brulee scented with rose geraniums. Plus, there's a warm chocolate cake that's molten at its heart and served with homemade ice cream and mocha sauce.

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