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SOCAL STYLE / Restaurants

Hip on the Strip

September 19, 1999|S. IRENE VIRBILA

The new kid on the sunset strip is the Standard, a budget hotel for the young and hip with an upside-down banner as a sign and a wavy white facade lit by ghostly blue lights. Who but Andre Balazs, the owner of the eccentric Chateau Marmont across the street, would have seen the possibilities in this big box of a building that was once a retirement home? I keep imagining how former residents would have reacted to the transformation. I like to think they would have enjoyed the way he's carpeted the poolside patio/bar with blue AstroTurf and set out comfy white chaise lounges and those wacky white umbrellas that look like tilted trampolines. Dig a quarter from your pocket, and you can get a panoramic view through one of those old pay-per-view binoculars. It's the same view as the posher, haughtier Mondrian down the Strip.

The design includes all sorts of droll details: In the lobby lounge, shag carpeting on the floor--and the walls and ceiling; slouchy brown sofas where hotel guests sprawl, and a retro-barbershop where buzz cuts cost $15. At night, a deejay unlocks those aluminum suitcases next to the front desk to reveal two turntables and a collection of vinyl. Behind the desk, in a glass box that resembles a very large aquarium, someone is sleeping on a green inflatable pool mattress. Looking at the room rates, I can't help but wonder if this is the $95 "budget Sunset room?" No, it's performance art.

In keeping with the rest of the place, the Standard's restaurant is not your standard-issue hotel restaurant of last resort. Its design riffs on '60s coffeehouse aesthetic, which never looked better. Take that stucco ceiling, painted a robin's egg blue, and the matching Formica tabletops. The flying saucer-shaped lights are contemporary, but you'd never know it. Cozy booths are covered in a brown perforated leather, and the bar stools are comfortable enough that you won't be in any hurry to move on. The view of the Strip, seen through a curtain of steel bead, takes on a mesmerizing, hazy glamour.

The surprise is the food. The well-thought-out menu is a savvy mix of standard coffee shop fare--with a twist--and international favorites for the well-traveled hipster. The restaurant is open 24 hours, and most of the menu is available 'round-the-clock. That means a burger or a decent Caesar salad at any hour. Even a bowl of miso soup or a banana split.

Individual pizzas have a bready, California-style crust. The tomato basil is nice, made with fresh Roma tomatoes and bocconcini, little mozzarella balls that melt into pools of white. There's a raw ahi tuna and wasabi version as well, and for the veggies among us, a green fava bean and tofu rendition.

My favorite is not technically a pizza, but Alsace's answer to pizza, the tarte flambee--a thin crust topped with a smear of creme fra 5/8che, julienned bacon (prosciutto is substituted here) and a mess of caramelized onions. A refreshing gazpacho--the original V-8 juice--comes with grilled shrimp. Even the Hollywood chopped salad is fresher and more finely minced than most, dressed in a shrewdly balanced vinaigrette with bits of blue cheese.

I'll remember the Standard's burger the next time I emerge hungry from a movie after 10 p.m. This juicy sirloin patty comes with slices of ripe tomato, Dijon mustard in a plastic squirter and a pile of excellent fries, hand cut with the skins on.

Another great late-night snack is the Croque Monsieur, here more substantial than the French original, the buttery grilled bread enclosing a double slice of ham and some Gruyere cheese. (Since this is L.A., they make a turkey version as well.) The B.A.L.T. is better than most, too, because the tomato has flavor and the thick-cut bacon is pleasantly smoky. If you like your toast warm, be sure to ask them to make it fresh for your sandwich or it might arrive cold.

The kitchen turns out appealing supper fare, too. Slabs of moist roast pork come with caramelized apples and good mashed potatoes.

Steak frites are dressed up with a red wine sauce and mushrooms. And there's a delicious arroz con pollo laced with chorizo. If you're going for the Popeye look, order a plate of sauteed spinach on the side.

Ah, they've got pie for dessert--but not just any pie. Earlier this season it was a peach "tartin" (playing off tarte tatin, the French caramelized apple tart), served warm on a puff pastry crust with a ball of vanilla ice cream. The trio of sorbets--grapefruit, mango, strawberry--are strewn with a few very good raspberries and piled in a stemmed glass. Don't leave without trying the terrific "coffee cup" creme brulee, served in just that. Mochi balls, ice cream wrapped in a thin layer of pounded rice, are gummy, though.

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