L'Orangerie has always been the most rigorously French of Los Angeles' restaurants, a 23-year-old institution as admired for its sumptuous old-fashioned decor as for its haute cuisine. Though the dress policy no longer dictates a tie for men, L'Orangerie may be the last bastion of traditional "fine dining" in a city determined to be comfortable and casual at all times.
The room, with its candlelight and lavish flowers, has always done its glamorous best to make any occasion feel special. The food, though, has had its near-great and disappointing moments over the years. Mention L'Orangerie and many dedicated restaurant-goers will admit they haven't eaten there in years. I suspect it's because the restaurant has always been so tightly wound. Service tended to be awkward and fussy, and the cuisine wasn't always impressive enough to override its stifling effect.
These days, however, L'Orangerie is making a turnaround. The room feels alive and warm, and the service, under manager Ignace Lecleir, is what it should have been all along. On recent visits, everything runs smoothly. The restaurant even has a slick new Web site, where you can view the menu and the wine list.
More important, 31-year-old Ludovic Lefebvre, chef for the past four years, is coming into his own. The French native, who 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, was nominated for the Rising Star award from the James Beard Foundation this year. Lefebvre is an intellectual cook, in tune with the latest developments in French haute cuisine, fascinated by new techniques and ardent about the exotic--whether it's an unusual fish or a spice that's just come into fashion.
His new menu, called "On the Spice Route," is his best yet. On an evening when a friend and I asked the chef to create a special menu for us, it included some of the dishes from this $95 prix fixe menu. The dish that stood out for me was an extraordinary duck breast encrusted with spices.
On a later visit, my guests and I opt for the entire eight-course spice menu. The first two courses are surprising--and wonderful. First comes shredded king crab and peeky toe crab suspended in a fragile gelatin infused with star anise and garnished with a smooth avocado bavarois. Then a remarkable roasted rock lobster with Ceylon cinnamon. Buttery pasta-- spaghettini broken and cooked in broth like Catalan fideus--sits beneath the single curl of rock lobster. The pasta has soaked up the lobster essence and a dose of cinnamon so penetrating it's heart-stopping. This is exciting cooking.
The next course is seared ahi tuna marinated in vanilla with essence of red beet and black cardamom. It's definitely a love-it-or-leave-it proposition. In our case, the combination of the bland, almost raw, tuna with an incredibly strong vanilla taste is perplexing. An entire vanilla bean is balanced on top of the tuna like a tightrope walker's pole. While I love the blood-dark essence of beet, the beet salad is unappetizingly slippery. It's a case of going too far to astonish. Not many chefs would even take the risk, however, which is exactly what I like about Lefebvre.
Unfortunately, on this visit, the duck breast I loved so much the first time around has gone from extraordinary to inedible. After two bites, my friend puts down her fork. The sweet spices, especially the mace, are so overwhelmingly potent, they numb the tongue. This is not the same dish I had before. I suspect it's because the chef can't monitor the dishes as closely on nights like this one, when it's busier. But next comes seared filet of beef poached in red wine infused with star anise, green cardamom and Indonesian "long pepper." The filet is beautifully tender and here, the mix of sweet and hot spices intoxicating.
On another evening, we try beef tenderloin cooked with pistachio paste in a dark roasted coffee chocolate sauce. Nobody at the table can tolerate the extreme bitterness of the sauce, which tastes something like a Oaxacan mole squared. That same night the host persuades us to try his favorite dish, the roasted whole organic chicken for two. When it's ready, the server shows off an entire chicken sitting on bread dough and encased in an overturned Pyrex dish. The bird is scattered with handfuls of threebe, a wild herb from Greece. It looks beautiful, but the dish is so overdosed with the potent herb that the effect is almost medicinal.
Owners Virginie and Gerard Ferry seem to be staying more in the background these days, letting the new manager direct the dining room. Lecleir brings a warmer, more personal touch that was sorely needed. He's comfortable with people and knows how to coddle without going over the top.