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RESTAURANT SPECIAL '98 | COVER STORY

All You Can Eat

Have a hankering for huevos rancheros? A lust for lobster? A passion for pizza? When you want to know where to go for a great meal--and what to order once you're there--just ask Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila. Here, her tips for satisfying your every culinary craving. To book your table now, see the restaurant directory on Page 23. Bon appetit!

March 15, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA

What's the toughest reservation in town?

*

Spago. Spago. Spago.

Wolfgang Puck and his wife and partner, Barbara Lazaroff, know how to put the sizzle in the scene--and the food. Their Spago Beverly Hills, with its romantic courtyard garden and state-of-the-art kitchen, practically smolders from the heat of Hollywood honchos and celebrities. So much so that prime-time reservations are next to impossible. The restaurant, on the site of the former Bistro Garden, debuted last April. The original Spago in Hollywood is alive and well, and, these days, it just might be easier to get a good table there, but this is where you'll find Puck most of the time. And it's here that he--with the help of formidably talented chef de cuisine Lee Hefter and his crew--is showing L.A., once again, what he can do in the kitchen. Leaving his signature California cuisine behind, he has returned to his roots in fine dining, turning out inspired and casually elegant food for grown-ups. (The young Puck, remember, came to Ma Maison from celebrated three-star kitchens in France.) What's astonishing is how the kitchen can produce this pared-down, sensual cooking so consistently for so many people, often several hundred diners a night. Add the wonderfully eclectic, fairly priced wine list, and it's easy to understand why Spago Beverly Hills draws not only the see-and-be-seen crowd but also, now, serious eaters. If only it were easier to get a table.

Is there still a place to go for a taste of old L.A.?

The Musso & Frank Grill. Where else can you find jellied consomme or Welsh rarebit, or a waiter who has been fussing over you for the past two or three decades and knows exactly how you like your French-cut lamb chops cooked? And where but Musso & Frank do you find old-fashioned American cooking by a chef, as the menu proudly states, from France? If you stick to classics such as shrimp cocktail or hearts of lettuce with Roquefort dressing, the juicy steaks and chops or the terrific grilled liver with sweet, charred onions, you'll do fine here. I love the open-face prime rib sandwich, served with a bowl of jus, a dab of horseradish and mashed potatoes. Sipping a dry martini at this 79-year-old Hollywood hangout, you can almost imagine the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and other literary luminaries who made Musso their favorite haunt.

There's usually a line at each of the 10 carving stations at Philippe the Original near Chinatown. What's the big attraction? The French-dip sandwiches (beef, lamb, pork and turkey) Philippe has been serving to an eclectic downtown crowd since 1908, when French emigre Philippe Mathieu "invented" the combination of hand-carved, roasted meats and a soft bun dipped in the 1835360628to take home) and a side of creamy potato salad and sweet, vinegary slaw. Check the chalkboard for top-notch wines by the glass. A steamy mug of coffee is just nine cents, and the lemonade is puckery good.

Pacific Dining Car, which dates to 1921, is housed in an old railroad car now outfitted in clubby Victorian splendor. The 6th Street restaurant serves prime steaks and chops at stockbrokers' prices all night, so if you get a craving for steak and eggs at 4 in the morning, this is the place. Also in downtown and now owned by L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, the Original Pantry Cafe--call it the original greasy spoon--claims it has closed only once in 74 years. You never know who you're going to see at this unpretentious 24-hour, seven-days-a-week spot known more for heroic-sized portions than for fine cuisine.

How about a place to wow out-of-town friends?

For people-watching and great food, take them to Spago Beverly Hills (see above). Or treat them to the new Vincenti in Brentwood. Gino Angelini, who was Rex Il Ristorante's last chef, and partner Maureen Vincenti offer exciting contemporary Italian cooking--sumptuous pastas, plus assorted meats and whole fish cooked in a wood-burning rotisserie. Vincenti doesn't aspire to Rex's grandeur. Despite its suburban setting, it's closer to a smart urban restaurant in a city like Milan.

Orange County harbors two of the best French restaurants in Southern California. After remodeling, Liza and Tim Goodell's 3-year-old Aubergine will reopen later this spring in Newport Beach with a handful of additional tables. Meanwhile, Goodell is turning out stylish bistro cooking at the couple's new South Coast Plaza bistro, Troquet. Everything--rustic breads baked in the wood-fired oven, impeccably fresh oysters, the savvy cheese course and exquisite desserts--is sophisticated and on the mark. It takes just one taste of Goodell's lobster strudel or veal cheeks en cocotte to know why these two places are so cherished by Francophiles.

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