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THE REVIEW

A nighttime drama that starts at the door

From opening night, Grace was designed to be the hot ticket in L.A. And one look at the swirling scene and frenetic menu leaves no doubt that it's arrived.

May 21, 2003|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

PULL open the door at Grace, and plunge in. There's the girl sitting at the bar in an undershirt and tattoo, wearing a wool watch cap despite the warm evening, cell phone microphone dangling near her ear, more social armor than actual tool. Two female bankers from out of town are excitedly waiting for a table, thrilled they've snagged the hot-right-now address. Nearby on the sofa, a group of friends who could easily stand in for the cast of the long-running sitcom is pouring rose Champagne all around and toasting the evening's birthday boy, presents at the ready.

It's been like this since Day One, almost three months ago, when Grace opened in the old Muse space on Beverly Boulevard. Obviously, the owners, one of whom is Richard Drapkin, a partner in Brentwood Restaurant, pooled their address books and got the word out early. All night long, people who didn't plan ahead stream in the door trying to get the attention of the hostess -- and a table.

Overhead chandeliers dangle like earrings and the entire scene -- beautiful people in black or white, hangers-on, waiters in safari chic, a towering library of wines, flowers floating in tubes of water like drowning Ophelias -- is reflected in elegant convex mirrors. Couples sit close on tangerine banquettes, feeding each other bites of tandoori quail or day-boat scallops. Outside the windows, the neighborhood strolls by, mothers with baby carriages, students with backpacks, Hasidim on their way home from temple.

Neal Fraser, the chef and a partner, is back in the neighborhood where he started in L.A. He was the first chef at Boxer, a bit west on Beverly, where Cobras & Matadors is now. His next stop was the trendy Rix in Santa Monica, where, despite his best efforts, the food was never the point. Fortunately, Grace's small bar keeps the focus on dining more than drinking.

Busy plates

FRAser's menu at Grace is ambitious and theatrical. Like many young chefs, he feels he has to make a statement with every dish, and although many of them are delicious, a good many, too, are overproduced. It says a lot that the best appetizer, consistently, is a salad of greens strewn with crunchy croutons and sweet red peppers juiced up with a sherry vinaigrette and crowned with that old cliche of California cuisine, a snowy round of warm, fresh goat cheese. This is a dish worth revisiting when the greens are this fresh, and the goat cheese has such a nice snap of acidity.

Eastern skate with fried capers in a parsley-speckled brown butter is delicious with black Tuscan kale. There's a nice selection of oysters on the half shell with a sherry mignonette -- or a truffled ponzu that should definitely be skipped. Even if the truffles were real, I'd pass on this idea. Sauteed foie gras doesn't need both rhubarb and sweet and sour cherries to make a point. But risotto, usually a dicey proposition at most restaurants, is a wonderful surprise, each grain of rice creamy yet firm at the center. Orange pumpkin, sweet shrimp and the sea urchin roe stirred in at the last minute give the rice a seductive richness.

A trio of raw fish, however, which includes an oyster with that truffled ponzu, hamachi drizzled with olive oil and a pinch of pink Hawaiian sea salt, and tuna lit up with tiradito (the Peruvian hot sauce Matsuhisa made famous), should go over big with the sushi crowd. I think it's a bit precious. Less successful, too, is a deconstructed blue cheese and pear terrine strewn with toasted hazelnuts. By contrast, his Dungeness crab salad scented with Thai basil and mint is demure and delicate, a light fluff of a first course.

Rabbit is always a bold move, and here Fraser does it justice. He stuffs the saddle with a forcemeat, wraps it in bacon, and threads it on a brass sword with the dusky liver. Served with soft polenta and a game stock, this is the best main course on the menu. Here the ubiquitous short ribs are veal, tender and a little wan in flavor. Turning them into an updated surf and turf with a whole langoustine languishing on top of the ribs doesn't make a whole lot of sense, though I love that the vegetable is the underused parsnip.

Anyone for wild boar?

Cherries show up with the roasted duck again, served with wild rice and ribbons of cabbage. It's somehow an old-fashioned dish that doesn't quite come off.

If you've always wanted to taste wild boar, this is your chance. It isn't a bit scary; it doesn't have much flavor either, more a nondescript red meat outshone by the little Brussels sprouts and sauteed spaetzle on the same plate. Its sauce is reminiscent of A-1, too strong for the boar.

The wine list is still a work in progress, with input from two sommeliers already. It's a workmanlike mix of California and imported wines with something for every budget. That goes for the food as well.

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