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Lap Up the Luxury at the New L'Ermitage

October 18, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Let's face it, hotel dining is rarely exciting. But it does offer something increasingly rare: the luxury of eating in serene and well-appointed surroundings. It's quiet enough to talk, you can linger as long as you like and the service is usually crisp and professional.

After a $65-million restoration, a small Beverly Hills hotel in a quiet residential area is setting its sights high. With rooms and suites ranging from $395 to $3,800 a night, I should think so. The brochure exhorts: "Experience the passion that is L'Ermitage Beverly Hills." I'm certainly game.

Sorely in need of a little luxury to soothe the soul, I set out with friends for dinner. As we pull up to the understated hotel, a phalanx of attendants springs forward, opening the car's four doors simultaneously with the precision of a Busby Berkeley routine. The attendants appear to be wearing Armani, and the gentleman in a caramel tunic suit bounding out to greet us could double as a U.N. ambassador.

We amble into the brightly lighted foyer, where we're greeted yet again and escorted through the elegant bar, past a young, affluent crowd sitting on the taupe tweed banquettes and curvaceous armchairs. The hotel's chic minimalist dining room is decorated in rich materials. Walls are sheathed in polished mahogany wood. Tall windows look out onto a sheet of water cascading seamlessly into a rectangular fountain. The seats are comfortable; the lighting, studiously flattering. Elegant steel bud vases hold sprays of orchids, and the hostess plucks linen napkins from silver rings and unfurls them in our laps.

The room is very formal, and most guests dress accordingly. So it's startling when several people, most likely hotel guests, enter dressed as if they've just come in from a hike. I'm glad they show up: They're a lively bunch, and they take some of the chill out of the hushed surroundings.

Service is unpretentious and efficient, but the food, I'm sorry to say, is unremarkable. Occasionally it can be very good, but for the most part, it's middle-of-the-road hotel cooking decked out in trendy ingredients and fussy presentation. What seems to be missing is the advertised passion. This is a restaurant for those who care more about setting and service than what's on the plate.

To start, the chef sends out an amuse-gueule: a crunchy, silver-dollar-size risotto cake topped with black truffles in a luxurious veal reduction. Very nice. A salad of summer greens with walnuts, soft nuggets of goat cheese and julienned Asian pear is pleasant and light. Grilled Louisiana shrimp with a little salad dressed in citrus vinaigrette is all right too. But a khaki artichoke souffle tastes more of mushrooms than artichoke; its main virtue is that it's warm and fluffy.

Pasta--in this case, wide ribbons of pappardelle--is a different story. Sauced with wild mushrooms, it's rich and delicious. Whole roasted branzino (sea bass) perfumed with fennel has a delicate texture and flavor. I can also recommend the chicken roasted in the stone oven. Drizzled with black olive sauce, cut into small pieces and set on a cushion of dense artichoke puree, it's a motherly dish. A veal tenderloin special, however, tastes like something from a cafeteria. And "Peking-style" duck--too dry and flaccid to play off the citrus-watercress salad--is an old-style Spago dish on a bad day.

The chef is Serge Falesitch, who headed the kitchen at the now-defunct Eclipse in West Hollywood. A Spago and Chinois alumnus, Falesitch was executive chef at L'Ermitage in 1990 before moving to Cafe Delicias in Rancho Santa Fe a year later. A press release describes his signature "Cuisine du Soleil" as a "delectable blend of French Provence and Italian Tuscany infused with an Asian flair." But the Swiss-born chef shows more flair for Mediterranean cuisines than Eastern ones, relying, like too many American chefs, on soy sauce, ginger and seaweed to give a dish--any dish--an Asian twist.

On two subsequent visits, it's hard for me to enjoy sashimi that doesn't taste fresh. (The fact that the restaurant isn't busier seems to be taking its toll.) The bento box, with its lacquered compartments of odd little dishes, is disappointing: an incredibly salty miso soup, a few pieces of raw fish, some soggy tempura. Popcorn shrimp--how did they find their way onto this tony menu?--don't rise to the occasion. None of us can finish the greasy, dark brown nuggets. Duck and lobster spring rolls plumped with julienned vegetables aren't fried that well either; not even the lemongrass ponzu can make them taste anything other than bland.

When the waiter deftly cuts open the parchment paper packet to reveal my salmon cooked with threads of leek and carrot, the result is a bit sad. After such flourish, the fish turns out to be overcooked. And if the crispy Thai snapper hadn't also been cooked too long, it would be quite good. Still, the fettuccine with frutti di mare is fine, as is orecchiette tossed with duck raga. It's pasta. It's Mediterranean.

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