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A Hollywood Oasis

August 06, 2000|S. IRENE VIRBILA

I GET A KICK OUT OF TAKING VISITORS TO LES Deux Cafes, designer Michelle Lamy's indoor/outdoor Hollywood restaurant. After paying $5 to park the car myself, we stroll toward a wall softened with masses of flowering oleander. "This is the entrance?" the newcomer beside me wonders. Yes, it's that gap in the hedge. I love the surprise when we emerge from a narrow corridor into a full-blown Provencal garden, surrounded by a high wall covered with blooming climbers and scented with rosemary, lavender and sage. We find two of our guests ensconced at the small outdoor bar, enjoying an aperitif and the wildly eclectic scene. Welcome to L.A.!

Food has always been second to scene at Les Deux Cafes, which Lamy opened in 1996. It was just a garden, a kitchen across a courtyard and a derelict Arts and Crafts bungalow she had moved onto the site to restore as the second of the deux, or two, cafes. The concept has always been relaxed South of France cooking. Much of the produce came from the farmers market, and still does. The ideas behind the dishes were good, but the kitchen never could execute them consistently or get the food out in a reasonable time. The dawdling pace drove A-types crazy.

They didn't belong there anyway because, in a way, Les Deux Cafes has dual citizenship. The intoxicating mix of Hollywood types, young talent, intelligentsia and expatriates is distinctly L.A., but the pace is definitely European. You can linger at a table for hours, talking, drinking wine or sipping tea poured from an antique silver teapot. It is very civilized. No one is standing behind you, panting for your table.

The garden is perfect and the place to be, even in winter, except when it's raining. Long tables set out with linens and wineglasses give it a festive look. Eating outdoors is one of life's great pleasures, and it has always puzzled me why there are so few restaurants in L.A. where you can dine outside comfortably. Of course, the French are still ferocious smokers, and the garden is a haven for the unregenerate, who luxuriantly lean back in the metal garden chairs and blow smoke into the beleaguered olive tree.

Until recently, I would have advised ordering frugally at Les Deux, cautioning diners not to expect too much from the food and to just enjoy the interesting scene. If a grand bouffe was in order, Les Deux would not have been my choice. But in recent months, I've had meals that were better than average. Under the direction of James Grey, the food is coming into its own. Even on one mobbed Saturday night, when the kitchen was hit hard, the cooks get everything out in a relatively timely fashion--and more important, it's all pretty good. It was no longer amateur hour at Les Deux Cafes, I'm happy to say.

The first thing that comes out is a complimentary plate of radishes and miniature carrots for diners to nibble while perusing a menu that, on every night but Sunday, includes an entire page of specials. I've had good luck with oysters on the half shell and first-course salads. Of those, I like one of slivered smoked trout with mache and coins of waxy potato. The best part of the lobster salad is the fluffy couscous, crunchy with cucumber and fragrant with lemon. Grilled quail is appealing, too, but I cast my vote for the delicious, dark-fleshed squab salad offered one night as a special. Sometimes there's a vichyssoise, a thick, chilled leek and potato puree smoothed with cream, or a summer green zebra-tomato soup with fresh herbs.

The dish of stuffed zucchini blossoms is more problematic. Goat cheese and crushed hazelnuts make a lovely filling, but just three or four bites seems too meager a portion. During tomato season, you can get a small plate of green and red and striped heirloom tomatoes dressed with good olive oil, dots of fresh chevre and a sprinkling of fleur de sel, the premium sea salt from Brittany. Oh, and anyone who loves mussels should like the steamed ones here. They're big and plump, and the juices are laced with the anise taste of pastis. Soak up every last drop with a baguette.

Some of the second courses are endearingly homey, such as roasted leg of lamb--cut in juicy pink slices and served with a spring onion ragout, each sweet bulb trailing its stem like a train--or the braised short ribs with organic root vegetables. (The short ribs could have been braised longer, though.) The coq au vin is the coziest of dishes, with the chicken napped in the velvety sauce laced with mushrooms, but it has none of the requisite lardons, those lovely little bits of bacon that give the sauce a warm, burnished taste. Another of this coq au vin's eccentricities is that the sauce doesn't have as much wine as is traditional. But if you think of the dish as chicken with gravy, it's satisfying.

Those dishes go well with wine, but there's one offering that's terrific with a bottle of red. It's not something you see very often on L.A. menus: veal kidneys, roasted and cut in thick slices.

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