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COVER STORY

The Artful Nosher

Culture vultures can satisfy their palates as well as their souls at Southland galleries and institutions offering meals that range from simple to sublime.

July 15, 1999|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

Museum-going is an exhausting business. Looking at art has the same effect on me as the character in James Salters' collection "Dusk and Other Stories" who announces she's very hungry: "She had been at the museum, the paintings made her ravenous." The story takes place somewhere in Germany, where I gather, unlike Los Angeles, museums don't necessarily have anywhere decent to eat. Fortunately, here museum restaurants and cafes offer a place to rest weary feet, get a jolt of caffeine, a little something to tide you over till dinner, or an entire meal. The choices are as varied as the city's museums. Here's my pick of the most appealing.

Newest in the local galaxy of museum restaurants is Pentimento Cafe at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which opened in January in the former museum bookstore space. Created by Patina's Joachim Splichal, the cafe has a clean, contemporary look with pale, polished cherrywood walls, granite tabletops and stylish cafe chairs, a full bar (handy for the Friday afternoon jazz concerts) and an attractive outdoor terrace shaded by umbrellas.

An attentive waiter in a black apron will take your order: to start, a bowl of olives and pine nuts is a nice snack, with a glass of wine from the well-chosen list. There's also a potent garlicky hummus with caramelized, whole garlic cloves that leave an indelible tracer on the breath, and a lovely, tomatoey gazpacho laced with finely diced vegetables and homemade croutons.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 22, 1999 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 51 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Getty Restaurant--The phone number to make reservations at the restaurant at the Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, is (310) 440-7300. An additional phone number that is not for reservations was included in the cover story on museum dining in the July 15 Calendar Weekend.

Nicoise salad, made with fresh tuna, looks photo-ready, but only the greens are dressed, and just barely. Cobb salad with bacon, cheese and chicken striped across the top is tastier, though the dressing is watery.

Desserts include a trio of cremes bru^lees, the best of which is the classic vanilla bean; pistachio is excruciatingly sweet. A plate of Patina cookies hits the spot with an espresso. Lunch or no, you can stop in for a snack or dessert and coffee all through the afternoon. And how sophisticated it feels sitting here with all the talk of art swirling around you.

* Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Pentimento Cafe, 5905 Wilshire Boulevard at South Ogden Drive, Los Angeles, (323) 857-4761. Open Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, 12-8 p.m.; Friday, 12-9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Parking in museum lot or on street.

The Restaurant at the Getty Center, one floor up from the casual no-reservation cafe, has a setting that most restaurateurs would kill for: a drop-dead view of the hills and, on a clear day, the sea beyond. The light-drenched space, decorated with an Alexis Smith mural on the theme of taste, is especially pleasant at lunch. I like to sit outside on the breezy terrace at a table set with a vase of gerbera daisies and Riedel stemware. Every wine on the list is also available by the glass.

A mild-mannered seafood soup with salmon, shrimp and scallops isn't particularly compelling, though. A summer Greek salad is nice, except for the tasteless tomatoes. But baby spinach salad is overburdened with smoky bacon and fried leeks, and sodden with dressing. Our waiter swears the pumpkin gnocchi, which are the menu's tie-in to the current Dosso Dossi show, are fabulous. We end up eating all the delicious chunks of shiitake mushroom and leaving the leaden gnocchi behind. Crispy whitefish is nicely crisped, but not enhanced by gluey mashed potatoes.

What's best? The extravagantly tall Getty Club sandwich, served with a crock of green mayonnaise on the side (so California). Vanilla bean ice cream is terrific, too. My advice? Stick with the simple and classic. Judging by two recent meals there, the kitchen isn't always up to executing some of the overambitious ideas.

* The Getty Center, the Restaurant at the Getty Center, 1300 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood. (310) 440-6810, restaurant; (310)440-7300, visitor services. Open Thursday and Friday for dinner, 5-8:30 p.m. Open for lunch Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday brunch is 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Parking by reservation only.

Adjacent to Santa Ana's Bowers Museum is Topaz Cafe, which functions as a free-standing restaurant, also open when the museum is closed on Mondays and at night Thursday to Saturday. Vaguely Southwestern in feeling, it features terra cotta-colored walls, huge vases of flowers and a long bar with a glimpse of the cooks at the back. A handsome outdoor terrace doubles the cafe's space.

Billed as a "creative world cuisine," the cafe's menu suits the museum's eclectic collection. Big, juicy salads are appealing, especially the vibrant Singapore salad with ripe mango, pineapple, papaya, tofu and greens in a sweet-tart peanut dressing that packs some heat. Tunisian salad strewn with artichokes, grilled peppers and garbanzo beans can be embellished with excellent grilled lamb chops for a few dollars more. The Santa Fe Caesar's dressing, though, tastes more like ranch than a true Caesar.

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