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Luxe Redo

An Ambitious Remake of Raffles L'Ermitage's Restaurant Takes the High Road

April 07, 2002|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Hotel restaurants have it tough. Locals generally avoid them because most are stuffy, overpriced and rarely exciting. Hotel guests don't particularly want to eat in either, unless they don't know a soul in town or are completely unadventurous. If you come to L.A., you want a place where you'll see the life of the city--as well as eat better.

That makes the remake of the restaurant at Raffles L'Ermitage, the Beverly Hills luxury hotel, all the more remarkable. Its first incarnation wasn't a success. I remember one dinner when the only other table was a foursome in T-shirts, obviously hotel guests, jet-lagged and sawing away at basically meat and potatoes. We had ordered the tasting menu, a choice so unlikely that the chef came out to peer at our party.

In making a change, the safe thing would have been to rewrite the menu to look like that of every popular spot in town. Instead of bringing on the chopped salads, seared ahi tuna and New York strip, the management did something unusual. It involved chef David Myers in revamping the entire restaurant, not just the menu. That meant redoing the decor, investing in an expensive array of new tableware and hiring a new front-of-the-house staff.

The restaurant was renamed Jaan. The word is Cambodian for dish or bowl, and is meant to convey the idea that Jaan fuses elements from Indochine, French and American cuisines. Obscure and difficult to remember, the name errs on the side of pretension. I thought the odds of the restaurant being dreadful or interesting were about 50/50. On my first visit, I found my meal much better than those I'd had during the restaurant's previous try, which was under the same chef. And subsequent meals confirmed that impression.

The small menu of six first courses and the same number of main courses changes every few weeks. Some dishes are wonderful, like oyster mushroom soup embellished with roasted Dungeness crab and a dreamy lemon verbena fondant. Or a soup of celery root puree with pear and sea urchin. Because the kitchen was out of sea urchin the night I tried it, Myers substituted Santa Barbara spot prawn, cooked just two minutes and cut into bite-sized pieces. For the first time in a long while, soup seemed interesting again.

Maine lobster goes into a beautiful salad of Belgian endive and watercress, in which the bitter crisp greens and the sweet lobster meat play off a slurry of green apple vinaigrette. For another fine appetizer, skate wing is topped with thin strips of velvety Big-Eye tuna wrapped around pickled, vinegary papaya. It's a delightful weaving of flavors. Pickling is a theme that runs throughout Myers' new menu. It's particularly effective in the combination of tender pickled veal tongue with braised rabbit leg and gingered broccoli raab.

Fish and shellfish are all incredibly fresh, sometimes excessively so. I love the silken texture of slow-roasted Scottish salmon, every bite rare and custardy, but perhaps it doesn't need the Santa Barbara prawns sprawling on top. It is wonderful, though, with "forbidden rice" stained black with squid ink. One night, the confit of black bass is virtually raw, like a thick piece of sashimi still wearing its tough diamond-patterned skin. That's a bit off-putting, but its garnish of Manila clams and a risotto colored with mustard greens are both delicious.

When Myers cooks red meat, he gives even that a slight Asian twist. I'm thinking of the braised Colorado lamb shank and roasted loin flavored with bright, grassy cumin seed, set off with sweet and sour shallots (there's the pickle idea again) and pea sprouts. The menu also offers something optimistically called "Vision of Jaan." The chef's tasting menu, which must be ordered by the entire table and can vary from six to eight courses depending on the evening, is mostly culled from the regular menu. Portions are smaller, of course, and the dishes are often variations on a theme or a slightly different take on the original.

When three of us tried the "vision" one night, it started with a brilliant amuse bouche: a dab of shaved raw foie gras and hamachi belly rolled up with shiso leaf and garnished with a few strands of soba noodles. Then came lobster draped with uni (sea urchin) and served with miniature mustard-flavored spaetzle drizzled with curry oil, which made the lobster all the sweeter. That was followed by salmon confit topped with seared black bass, which didn't seem to have much to do with each other.

As the meal progressed, the plates got larger and larger, but the portions smaller. When a rectangular plate arrived with modest bites of squab, pork belly and rabbit liver, it reminded us of the worst excesses of nouvelle cuisine. My dining companions were worried that they were going to go hungry for $85 a person. (They didn't. But then they weren't exactly stuffed either.)

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