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Filling Up on Looks Alone?

November 29, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA

"What can the owners be thinking?" I keep asking myself after each meal at Pagani, the new West Hollywood power spot at the corner of Melrose Avenue and Robertson Boulevard. I'm completely perplexed.

The place is gorgeous. Los Angeles architect Hagy Belzberg has taken apart what was once the cozy Mortons (before the industry haunt moved across the street to grander digs) and, more recently, the grandiose Eclipse, and turned it into a coolly sophisticated setting. In its audacious glamour, Pagani is a throwback to the extravagant '80s, when daring restaurants were sprouting up left and right. If sheer good looks--and a well-heeled, star-studded crowd--were anything to go by, Pagani would seem to be one of the most exciting restaurants to open in L.A. in recent years.

The sleek bar-lounge, with its leather love seats and comfy armchairs, invites guests to linger. Behind the poured-concrete bar, a bartender shakes, blends and stirs a panoply of cocktails and colorful martinis. Purists can order the world's finest spirits straight up, too. Pagani's bar is a great place to impress a visitor with L.A.'s design potential or to simply show off your cutting-edge wardrobe from Maxfield across the street.

The airy dining room is an oasis of space and light at lunch; at night the lighting, which includes candles shaded with metallic brocade, is seductively flattering. Curvy booths upholstered in olive chenille line the wall beneath a mysterious piece of art that looks like a long musical stave stenciled with numbers. The patio has been turned into a comfortable outdoor room with polished aluminum Italian garden chairs, wonderful little divans heaped with pillows and a retractable roof.

Pagani is the namesake of George Pagani, the consummate maitre d' and manager who presided over the restaurant at the Regent Beverly Wilshire for many years and, more recently, Hotel Mondrian's Coco Pazzo. He graciously welcomes each guest, working the room in a relaxed manner.

While it's still possible to get a reservation on a day's notice, the place seems to be taking off. One night as I gave my car to the valet, he asked whether we were with the Robert Mondavi party. We weren't, but dozens more were, taking over the patio for a book-signing party for the winemaker's autobiography. On most nights, though, Pagani gets a typical Westside crowd.

So what's wrong with this picture? The owners have spent more than $500,000 to create a stunning restaurant. Pagani himself has devoted a great deal of time and effort training the wait staff to the highest standards (though I could do without the waiter who likes to pour wine with one arm tucked behind his back). How then, I have to ask, is it possible to get all of this right and then make such a misstep when it comes to the food? That, after all, is what a restaurant is selling, isn't it?

The menu features what I would call magpie cuisine, made up of ideas borrowed here and there and put together with no particular point of view. Elements are arranged on the plate seemingly without rhyme or reason.

Lobster salad, for example, includes not only avocado, but also mozzarella--and grapefruit. Greens are piled high on the plate and tossed in a sharp vinegary dressing with pine nuts, pickled red onion and nuggets of goat cheese and set on a fan of grilled unripe peach slices. Tagliarini are doused in a tomato sauce thin enough to be tomato soup, then scattered with slivers of olive and bottarga sliced so thick that the pressed dried mullet roe tastes incredibly fishy and salty. Potato-crusted sea bass is paired, inexplicably, withan awful sweet tomato stew that emphasizes the fish's slightly metallic taste. Cold-smoked salmon steak comes with potato balls stuffed with what looks like a cube of cheese but is actually tropical fruit.

When the chef doesn't try so hard to be original, his cooking improves. Chilled San Marzano tomato soup swirled with creme fraiche and garnished with eggplant caviar is soothing. Potato and leek soup with rosy little shrimp is delicious. Smoked salmon is appealing, too, served with a crispy potato pancake and a dollop of cool creme fraiche. A special of rib eye steak, with fat asparagus spears and mashed potatoes, is nicely charred, chewy and flavorful. And the beautifully tender rack of Colorado lamb served with green mashed potatoes scented with nutmeg would be a fine choice if the lamb tasted more like lamb. Osso bucco would be perfectly all right if it wasn't garnished with diced underripe tomato instead of the classic gremolata, a sprinkling of chopped parsley, garlic and lemon zest that brings the meat's flavors into focus.

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