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SOCAL STYLE / Restaurants

Polynesia Is Back on the Food Map

November 01, 1998|CHARLES PERRY | Charles Perry is a Times staff writer

What a great room. A burnished Hawaiian war canoe hangs from the ceiling--a high ceiling that evokes the spacious structure of a Polynesian long house. Giant clamshells and tasteful nautical oddments are parked here and there. If you sit near the garden window, you can even enjoy a handsomely lighted patch of jungle, right in Beverly Hills.

Sure, Trader Vic's is exotic by design. But this room, with its strong use of wood and subtle floor elevations, has a solid, sophisticated feel that rises above the concept of theme restaurant as fun house.

Trader Vic's was always the grown-up among Polynesian restaurants, which probably explains why it's hung around for 43 years. First it survived the eclipse of Polynesian cuisine, and then the French, California, Southwestern, Cajun and Tuscan phases of foodiedom. It managed this, in part, because owner Victor Bergeron was a pioneer foodie himself. He introduced Southland diners to kiwi fruit and green peppercorns, among many other things. The Polynesian cuisine he created was a bit of a hodgepodge--Cantonese appetizers, Indonesian curries and quaintly named rum drinks--but he made it work by the forcefulness of his personal taste.

When Bergeron died in 1984, his chain of restaurants , with branches as far away as Abu Dhabi in the Persian Gulf, seemed to drift. The menus continued to change over time, but there was no guiding hand. (Admittedly, Trader Vic's had to walk a fine line, trying to attract younger diners without alienating regulars.) Recently, the Beverly Hills Trader Vic's took a surprisingly bold step that promised either a way out of the impasse or disaster. It announced that the menu would be redone by a chef named Tony Baran, from Terrace il Ristorante, an Italian restaurant in Century City.

Have no fear. The new dishes, mostly confined to the appetizer list, turn out to be from the Pacific Rim, and many are real improvements. The light, delicate shrimp and crab cake is delightfully scented with fresh ginger. The chicken and prawn satay has a poetic saffron vinaigrette dipping sauce. Seared ahi tuna rolled in sesame seeds comes with a highly focused tarragon mustard sauce.

You can get a couple of good sushi items: a hand roll of soft-shell crab on an intriguing sauce of basil and flying-fish roe, and a "rainbow roll" of tuna and salmon. There's also a superior version of that Chinese classic, minced chicken in lettuce cups with hoisin sauce.

Just to be on the safe side, the second page of the menu still lists old-time Trader Vic appetizers ("Cosmo Tidbits"), including the famed crab Rangoon: fried wontons filled with crab and cream cheese. It may be a classic, but it isn't as harmonious as most of the items on the new appetizer list. One of the new appetizers--crab and cheese spring rolls--has the same problem as the crab Rangoon, a bland filling, in what are basically taquitos.

The entree list has shrunk somewhat from the days when there were 60 items on the menu. There's only one fried rice dish now, only one curry and none of the campy '40s dishes, such as the ham and eggs Hawaiian, that were being served just a few years back. As a result, the entrees consist overwhelmingly of Cantonese dishes and meats roasted in the two huge wood-fired Chinese clay ovens that are visible from most of the dining room.

This is a good thing because the Chinese oven items are truly excellent, particularly the fish. The sea bass, served on a Thai basil lobster essence, is moist and luscious. The lobster tail may be a little dried out, but how often do you get to have smoky lobster? Plus it comes with a good basil butter sauce. The dense, smoky rack of lamb, an acknowledged classic from Trader Vic's Chinese ovens, has a sort of hoisin sauce-based barbecue sauce. A perfectly cooked filet mignon comes with a curry sauce.

Outside the clay oven repertoire, you can still get a lamb curry with a rich, musty-spicy flavor. A palette of sambals--from chutney and shredded coconut to piccalilli and a raw cucumber--is still arranged around the plate in something like a paint box for garnishes. It's not exciting, but it works well enough, as does the peach blossom duck, served quite well-done with a fruit sauce on the side. But the Cantonese dishes that make up the rest of the entrees seem shockingly expensive. Scallops sauteed with onions and sweet peppers and a dose of red chile peppers are fine, but it's mind-boggling to pay more than $20 for this dish.

A couple of excellent Pacific Rim desserts are available: a rich, smooth Thai basil mousse garnished with disks of white chocolate, and a tamarind-infused creme brulee tart. The Kahlua cheesecake and ginger chocolate cake, a flourless creation, are pleasant but rather dry. Two of the best desserts are old-timers, though: rum ice cream with candied pecans and the snowball--vanilla ice cream rolled in shredded coconut and served in chocolate sauce.

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