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SOCAL STYLE / Restaurants

Special Event Dining

May 16, 1999|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Twenty-one years ago, a young French couple with a dream and imagination turned a nondescript building on La Cienega Boulevard into a romantic 18th century l'orangerie. Today, cars rush by to mundane destinations, but here in this sheltered courtyard terrace, the intoxicating scent of orange trees in bloom perfumes the air. Inside, candles softly illuminate tables swathed in crisp linen, tuxedoed waiters proffer Champagne and effusive arrangements of lilies, roses and gladioli nearly reach the ceiling. You could imagine Charles Boyer dining with Ingrid Bergman in this setting.

I remember a night when an older woman in a long evening gown leaned against the piano, languorously singing one last bittersweet song. And I've watched, bemused, as vintage Rolls-Royces and Bentleys pulled up to deliver perfectly coiffed women cosseted in satin and furs. These days, though, you're just as likely to see youthful industry types celebrating a deal, or romantic couples lingering over dinner. L'Orangerie remains one of the city's premier special occasion splurges, one of the few places in town where it's a shame not to dress up.

L'Orangerie revels in its Frenchness. The only concession to the more relaxed California style is that ties are no longer required, but jackets are. Recent chefs have come straight from France, bringing the latest trends with them. When Paris chef Gilles Epie left in 1996 after only a year, owners Gerard and Virginie Ferry promoted a very young Ludovic Lefebvre. Just 28, Lefebvre had spent almost 10 years working with some of France's best chefs: He apprenticed with Marc Meneau at L'Esperance in Burgundy, and worked with Pierre Gagnaire in St. Etienne and Alain Passard at L'Arpege in Paris.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 27, 1999 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 4 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction; Web Only
In a May 16 review of L'Orangerie, it was incorrectly stated that the restaurant is open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner. The restaurant is also open for dinner Sunday.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 27, 1999 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 4 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
In a May 16 review of L'Orangerie, it was incorrectly stated that the restaurant is open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner. The restaurant is also open for dinner Sunday.

On a quiet weeknight, dining at L'Orangerie can be a lovely experience. The chef usually sends out an amuse-bouche, a little something to tease the palate. It could be anything from a dainty cup of velvety soup to a festive soft-boiled egg in its shell seasoned with a dash of cherry vinegar that plays tart against sweet. L'Orangerie's signature starter is softly scrambled eggs put back into the shell and topped with caviar. Even more sumptuous is a "cream" of eggs, an ethereal froth suffused with the taste of Perigord truffles and Parmesan shavings. I also like an earthier dish: warm foie gras set on a bed of stony green French lentils laced with smoky bacon.

Lefebvre's whole roasted rock lobster with small mussels and short lengths of pasta cooked in the Catalan style with a swirl of cinnamon butter is an astonishing match for a Chardonnay. Another fine starter is the lobster tart, a magnificent drum of golden pastry that has the yeasty taste of croissant dough. The waiter cuts a circle in the middle, lifts the lid and presents a minimalist lobster pie with morsels of barely poached lobster and pearl onions. I also like the silky terrine of foie gras layered with cured ham and dried figs and served with toast points. I'm less fond of the seared Hudson Valley foie gras with Szechwan peppercorn and dried apricot puree because it's so sweet, or the fussy "cream" of Alaskan king crab.

Among the main courses, beautifully cooked John Dory set on a bed of meltingly tender sweet onion "marmalade" in a sea urchin jus is particularly inspired. Beef tenderloin roasted with an array of peppers is a superb piece of meat, paired with a subtle reduction and souffle potatoes so light they threaten to sail away on a puff of air. Less successful is a breast of woodland duck coated with crushed almond powder so excruciatingly sweet that it tastes like stale Cracker Jacks and ruins a perfectly good magret, and the roasted monkfish with hazelnuts and gluey potato beignets seasoned with paprika and cumin.

Desserts, which had been a weak point, are now something to celebrate. The souffles, ranging from dark chocolate to an amazing black truffle version, are fluffy bites of cloud. A tart of razor-thin apple slices spiraled over a fragile pastry makes a perfect light ending to the meal. An extravagant chocolate mousse cake with almond cream and coffee ice cream is so unabashedly rich that it elicits groans of appreciation from one of my guests. I love the look of the roasted passion fruit in a halo of spun sugar: It resembles a stork's nest filled with the "eggs" of halved, warmed passion fruit.

The wine list is among the most expensive in town (though by French standards, it may not be excessively so). I'm always hard-pressed to find anything interesting to drink for less than $50, and if you want wines at the same level of the cuisine, you'll have to come with deep pockets. California selections are more affordable--just. There is a solution: Pay the $25 corkage fee, bring your own grand cru Burgundy or first growth Bordeaux, and voila--life is beautiful.

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