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ENTERTAINING

Impromptu supper club

In the middle of the week, Kai Loebach is likely to throw together a dinner party for a dozen or so friends. And, even more likely, they'll drop anything to be there.

October 30, 2003|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

It's Wednesday night, and friends of Kai Loebach are tapping their fingers, waiting for the phone to ring. It could happen. He has called before at the last minute and asked if they were free for a feast at his home in Nichols Canyon. There could be a salad with heirloom tomatoes, French wax beans and Austrian pumpkin seed oil dressing. Or fresh branzino broiled with sea salt. Or maybe shepherd's pie with lamb, red cabbage and mashed potatoes. But even if he were serving only grilled cheese sandwiches and burgers, it would be worth dropping everything because the sandwiches are layered withjalapeno Muenster and onion marmalade, and the turkey burgers are juicy saucers between circles of airy brioche.

Loebach is a chef who caters to celebrities, but when he's at home, he's the entertainer. And Wednesdays are his nights to perform. He picked that day when he started this tradition five years ago because it's in between the weekends and friends are usually hungry for socializing. It's also a casual day without the expectation of a night on the town. Eating outside, bunched together at a long picnic table, seems just right. And, not coincidentally, the house-cleaning crew comes to tidy things up on Thursday mornings.

He invites friends for cocktails at 7:30, dinner at 9, dessert at 10 and chatting that continues until midnight. At first, they huddle around him in the kitchen he designed as he sautes garlic shrimp and dices tomatoes, artichokes and baby squash for the barigoule.

Slowly, they pull themselves away and take a tour of the artworks in his modern home: sculptures by Cecilia Miquez, glass pieces by Alison Berger, landscape paintings by Luc Leestemaker and black-and-white photographs by Tony Sears and Mita Rosenberg. They carry their drinks down the flagstone steps along the sideyard, past Italian fountains and Moroccan urns, around the outdoor kitchen and on to the pool, built for previous owner Jim Nabors. They stop at the property's edge, a cliff 30 feet above Mulholland Drive by the Hollywood Bowl.

Nichols Canyon is so rustic, so rural, so anti-downtown that raccoons swim laps in Loebach's pool, drag koi out of his pond, drink from the stone fountains and carry on in the yard as if they owned the place. "If I look out the windows in the kitchen at night, there are so many eyes looking inside that I wonder if we're being watched," jokes Loebach, who lives with Lee Miller, director of the pediatric residency training program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. "But they were here first, so we just accept it."

The more the merrier for Loebach, a 39-year-old only child who can't get enough of his wide circle of friends. "I love when people are here. The look of their faces warms my heart. I can be in the kitchen, not even sitting with them outside, and feel that warmth. People feel comfortable, at home, in a garden."

The week before, he had an Oktoberfest with an oompah band putting 300 people in the mood for polka dancing on top of the wood-covered pool. Sauerkraut, fish and other pungent foods were cooked on the outdoor stove. Loebach wore lederhosen. "So comfortable," he says, grinning.

He is expecting 14 friends tonight, but he never knows how many will show up. Sometimes they bring along a new face, but it always works out. "The less you plan," he says, "the better dinner parties turn out. If you plan everything to the last detail, something always fails."

An hour before guests arrive, Loebach has corralled his two Airedales and Welsh terrier in their dog run. "Otherwise, people feed them," he says. He has turned on '60s samba and is teetering outside on an extension ladder, inserting thick white candles into a wrought-iron chandelier that is roped around a pine tree limb.

He was up before dawn, buying fresh produce, fish and flowers at the downtown markets. From his garden, he's plucked lemons, limes and grapefruits and pinched sprigs of rosemary, lavender and scented geraniums. He stays calm, but there is still lots to do.

The phone rings: "Sure! Come early and you can watch me vacuum the pine needles in the backyard and the gravel on the driveway," Loebach tells his caller.

He lights two patio heaters but has no fear of guests being chilled on this comfortable night. "This is California," he says, his palms up in the air. "This ... is ... California.

"If I were in Germany, I wouldn't consider eating outside in October," says Loebach, who grew up in Wuppertal, Germany, and moved to Los Angeles in 1987. "But that's why I live here. There is no other place in the world where you can entertain outside as extensively as in California."

The phone rings again. It's Miller, calling on his way home. He wants to know who's coming. "Patty and Tracey and Shannon and Kevin and Philip," Loebach says, catching his breath. "And Klaus, who brought the bouquet to the Oktoberfest, and Doug. But I really have to get going."

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