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The shine's back on Le Dome

THE REVIEW

January 14, 2004|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

Le Dome, the famous rocker and music industry haunt on Sunset Strip, was seriously in danger of going the way of the dodo bird and Chasen's when longtime owner Eddie Kerkhofs found new partners -- Ronald Tutor and David Bergstein -- with the cash for a radical makeover. If ever there was a fashion emergency this was it. The once-glamorous venue was looking decidedly dowdy and dispirited. Even the TV executives and music moguls legendary for hitting on anything that moved seemed in short supply. The high rollers? Moved on. Ed McMahon was about as heated as the star sighting got.

Enter design maven Dodd Mitchell, who has had a hand in virtually every recent trendy newcomer from Dolce Enoteca and Chi to the abruptly shuttered Avenue. Does this guy ever sleep? With more than $2 million to spend, Mitchell re-envisioned Le Dome with ziggurat motifs, Gothic windows trussed in metal and flames erupting from a horizontal slot of flat-screen TV "fireplace." It's so edgy, it's almost pervy.

It's difficult to imagine Zsa Zsa in her ermines sweeping through the new Le Dome's bold front door, now faced in smooth half-logs the color of bitter chocolate. This is another, more casual time. Half of today's Le Dome crowd is composed of scruffy comedians and actors in beanies and skinny shirts. But the old-timers are here, too -- many dressed as if it's still the ongoing party it was when Le Dome opened in 1977, with silk handkerchiefs carefully tucked into pockets, hand-polished loafers and old-world tailoring. It's a culture clash on Sunset Boulevard.

Each group has its own territory. When Mickey Rourke in tough-guy leathers and a knit cap pulled down to his brows swaggers in, he's seated on the terrace. The Kirk Douglases and Don Rickleses are dining together at a secluded table in the back. The opulent leather booths are discreetly spaced for privacy.

If anything, it's the bar that seems underpopulated these days, with only a handful of die-hards enjoying the honey-colored marble top, lighted from underneath so it casts a golden, and very flattering, glow on anybody seated there.

The restaurant is positively basking in its new look. But is the food any better? Well, yes and no. Sam Marvin, 39, last seen in these parts a decade ago as chef and owner of the innovative Modada on Melrose Avenue, is executive chef. (He was last at Piero's in Las Vegas, where he was the chef.) He has almost completely retooled the menu, leaving only a handful of stalwart dishes from the past, each with the notation "1977" to indicate it's a Le Dome classic. He's chosen well: A couple of these older items are among the best dishes on the menu.

Le Dome's food is updated Continental. That means plenty of ingredients that signal luxury -- caviar, foie gras, lobster, truffles -- and enough requisite bells and whistles in the presentation to justify the high tariffs. Everything here is putting on the Ritz.

Owner Kerkhofs is Belgian and mussels Belgian style are everything they should be. Rope-grown off the coast of Santa Barbara, they're soft and plump, bathed in a briny broth laced with shallots and perfumed with opal basil oil. Right now stone crab claws from Florida are a special, two as an appetizer, four as a main course. The claws are huge, filled with dense, sweet crabmeat. Forget the foie gras. This is the most sumptuous first course on the menu.

I doubt French chef Marc Meneau would be flattered to have his name associated with Le Dome's foie gras au torchon. The portion is mingy: tiny slices of beige foie gras set on round pieces of toast. It doesn't even faintly resemble Meneau's extraordinary foie gras. The quality of the caviar on top of the pretty bluefin tuna carpaccio isn't the best either. It tastes muddy and overly salty.

Marvin seems to be still tinkering with the menu, though. Tandoori chicken legs or thighs has morphed into whole Cornish game hen, for example, and "pheasant under glass" was different every time I tried it. I wish I could say, though, that each meal I've had at Le Dome has been better than the last. The progress isn't that evident. I think Marvin's cooking was better at his own place when he wasn't trying for such a grand effect.

The ladies who lunch naturally gravitate to the salads. There's even a "water" salad made from lettuces and greens that have not had any actual contact with dirt, i.e., they're hydroponically grown, the waiter explains. It's pretty enough, but barely there, though the mint ricotta dressing helps out.

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