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RESTAURANT JOURNAL

Give her the world (but menu is set)

February 12, 2003|Valli Herman-Cohen

It's hard to judge where the pressure is most intense -- on the couples who expect total romance on Valentine's Day, or on the restaurants whose job it is to fulfill their fantasies.

"If I could tell you how many guys call me in the last three days before Valentine's Day, desperate because they didn't get reservations," says Josie Le Balch of Josie in Santa Monica.

All this pressure and more conspires to make Valentine's Day -- one of the most popular days of the year to dine out -- also one of the worst. If you go expecting to choose from among a chef's best dishes, you might be surprised: Chefs are trotting out prix fixe menus with a smaller range of choices.

Not only will you wind up paying for an appetizer and dessert (whether you wanted them or not), but you'll have to choose from more predictable things. Chances are good you won't get a chef at full creative throttle.

Chef Josiah Citrin at Melisse in Santa Monica says he's "not getting too adventurous." On his four-course, $105 menu: classic preparations of steak, chicken breast and ahi tuna.

"The people who order chicken in a restaurant like this aren't adventurous," Citrin says. "In the end, the customer likes the crispy roasted chicken better than anything."

Quail, trout and duckling, though, round out a menu featuring steak and veal chops at Josie. "You have a lot of young couples and people who don't necessarily dine out a lot. You want to make it accessible," says Le Balch.

The prix fixe menus range from about $80 at La Cachette in Century City to $140 at L'Orangerie in West Hollywood. Some of the menus give diners a choice. Whist in Santa Monica has nine first courses on its menu.

Prix fixe menus are generally more profitable for restaurants than a la carte. On a day such as Valentine's, customers are willing to pay what it takes. But, says Le Balch, "I think an $85, four-course prix fixe meal is pretty reasonable."

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