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Haute Linq

August 27, 2000|S. IRENE VIRBILA

"OH, YES, SO THIS IS LINQ," MY FRIEND KATE says, nodding in recognition as we pull up. "I've driven by this place so many times and noticed that odd statue," she muses. Haven't we all? Mounted high above the doorway, the male figure--all lumpy-fleshed silver--points a huge flashlight at the eclectic crowd, which is sizable on weekends.

Linq is one of the best-looking restaurants to debut in a long time. Sleek and sophisticated, the design by Dodd Mitchell plays off water and fire, wood and stone, light and shadow. High-ceilinged rooms are framed by massive wooden squared arches. A flotilla of bare, low-wattage lightbulbs in different shapes, colors, vintages hang from the glassed-in patio at the front. Water courses down one wall over the black Italian marble veneer.

In the bar, a fireplace glows at counter height, and bottles in frosted-glass cabinets are silhouetted like puppets in a Balinese shadow show. The bar's small lounge is furnished with slouchy sofas and cube-shaped tables that are illuminated from within. The female bartender is fabulous in skintight snakeskin pants and belly-baring shirt.

We admire the creamy lacquered wall at the back of the bar and, at the far end of the dining room, a private room with a table set for 16 in front of a fireplace. That's when two of our party are hit with deja vu. "Wasn't this the old China Club?" Renee says, recalling the venue where she partied away her giddy 20s. That, Renee says, had a private room, too, at the back, but nothing as glamorous as this one at Linq, which is owned by club impresario Mario Oliver.

And for such a trendy place, the kind where food is usually beside the point, the cooking stands out for its vibrant Asian-Mediterranean flavors. The chef is Philippines-born Andre Guerrero, who last manned the stoves at the late Duet in Glendale. His Asian-French-Spanish heritage means he has fusion in his bones. On his global menu, duck confit salad, lobster ravioli and Moroccan-seared chicken share space with stir-fried vegetables and Thai noodles.

The best meal I had at Linq was the first one, before the restaurant became as busy as it is now. A lovely, sweet white-corn soup adorned with Dungeness crab meat and infused with ginger and lemon grass made a terrific starter, followed by one of the best dishes here, the whole sizzling catfish--head, tail, bones and all. Deep-fried to a crunchy crisp, its funky, slightly muddy flavor was set off by the salty heat of a Shanghai-style black bean sauce and earthy long beans. Dessert was a trio of dainty creme brulees: delicate green tea, sugary ginger and the classic vanilla, accompanied by sesame shortbread cookies. By the time we finished, it was well past 10. The restaurant wasn't very busy, and the service was right on the mark.

In recent weeks, however, Linq has suffered from overbooking, overcrowding and the usual ills of restaurants that attract the party set in great numbers. Each time, the host has asked if we were all there. When we answered yes, he told us to please wait in the bar. "The hostess will seat you in a few minutes."

On weekday nights, there's often no shortage of tables, so the object of this exercise can only be to encourage us to order something from the bar. During the weekends, though, Linq can be a zoo. There's nowhere to wait. One night, when 30 minutes pass and we're still standing in place along the ramp leading to the bar, one restless soul wants to leave rather than wait five minutes more. The manager does the right thing under the circumstances. He buys us drinks, which help occupy us for 20 more minutes until our table is ready. In the meantime, we find out that the bartender knows how to make a proper Manhattan and a dry Bombay gin martini straight up.

Once we're seated at a banquette, just next to a shimmering wall of water, menus, wine list and water come in short order.

Appetizers are generally stronger than main courses here. There's that corn soup, plus rich lobster raviolis in a curry-scented lobster bisque, a pleasant quesadilla stuffed with cheese and smoked salmon with a lime-drenched jicama salad, and a baby arugula salad embellished with poached pear and caramelized walnuts. Duck salad--which is sliced duck breast topped with a frazzle of fried, shredded duck confit--would have been better if the breast had been rosy pink instead of well done. And those crab cakes are really crab balls, but nice enough with a cilantro remoulade.

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