The standout on the menu is the cocotte of Maine lobster in an intense stock made with lots of lobster shells. The lobster is cooked perfectly and served in the broth with a few dainty ravioli stuffed with zucchini, along with calamari, fava beans and fennel. I remember every bite of that lobster. The most expensive entree on the menu is wild turbot from Brittany roasted under a salt crust and served with a baby artichoke ragout. It's a magnificent piece of fish, but for $58, you couldn't be faulted for expecting something more earth-shattering.
Roasted squab breast is the perfect red-wine dish on the menu. Rare and gamy, the thick slices are set on a raft of macaroni gratin with some tomato confit and dabs of black olive paste. I had a fine duck breast one night too. And once, prime rib for two that arrived with a pitcher of pommes souffles so light they threatened to float right off the plate. Rack of lamb, though, is disappointing, presented on undercooked white beans. And the Colorado lamb is neither tender nor very flavorful. On another occasion, a $39 plate of veal kidneys is overcooked. At these prices, it shouldn't happen.
The restaurant's weakest points are the service and the wine list. Service is erratic: sometimes thoroughly professional, other times stumbling.
Sommeliers regularly appear with impressive credentials, but no one ever seems to stay for long. Could the tired, unwieldy wine list with excessively high markups have anything to do with it? I suspect it's a frustrating position for a sommelier.
Fortunately, the restaurant now has a corkage policy of $25 per bottle, but only if the same wine -- of any vintage -- is not on its list.
For dessert, go with the apple tarte "a la minute." Baked to order, it's a precision swirl of thinly sliced apples on a thin buttery crust. It comes with oval scoops of vanilla ice cream and, if you like, softly whipped cream served from a tall silver container. The classic chocolate souffle sets a high standard too. Chocolate banana tart is dismal, but a rhubarb and raspberry napoleon is light and lovely. The petits fours -- miniature lemon tarts, madeleines, little almond cakes arranged in a long skinny porcelain bowl -- don't cut as graceful a figure. A pair of dark chocolate truffles rolled in cocoa make a much better ending.
We leave with a memory of orange blossoms and Champagne, France and conversation. The food, however delicious, is somehow more backdrop than center stage, the restaurant more a star than the chef. After 25 years, I guess that's about right.
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Rating: ** 1/2
Location: 903 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 652-9770.
Ambience: Extravagantly romantic with towering flower arrangements, soft candlelight and trellised walls. You can sit either in the main dining room or in the separate garden room with retractable roof. In the bar, a pianist churns out standards.
Service: Mostly correct and pampering, with occasional lapses.
Price: Appetizers, $18 to $110; main courses, $29 to $58; desserts, $10 to $14; menu royale, $135 per person.
Best dishes: Egg in the shell with caviar, zucchini flower stuffed with spring vegetables, Maine lobster en cocotte, wild turbot, roast pigeon, apple tart "a la minute," chocolate souffle.
Wine list: Extensive, but stolid, and exceedingly expensive.Corkage, $25.
Best table: The round one in the back corner.
Details: Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday, 6 to 11 p.m. Closed Monday. Valet parking, $4.50.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.