At the latest London import, Cecconi's, an expat Brit orders a cocktail, leans back against the luxurious cushions strewn along the terrace banquette and opens the morning's Times -- that would be the Times of London. Hostesses have a tony British accent, some of the servers too. A gentleman in a bespoke suit with tie and matching hankie tucked into his breast pocket glides past our table at lunch.
Most of the crowd, though, consists of ladies who lunch, several generations of them, many bestowed with major bling, major work and itty-bitty appetites, chattering over pretty salads and dainty servings of sea bass carpaccio. Can't get into the Ivy a few blocks south on Robertson Boulevard? Reserve at Cecconi's: The food from former All' Angelo and Dolce chef Mirko Paderno is much better.
Judging from the photo of the original London restaurant on Cecconi's website, the West Hollywood sibling is something of a knockoff in terms of decor. That would include the hideous turquoise vinyl bar stools on spool bases and the table lamps that glow like moons madly flattering everything in sight. The giant bar fills up much of the indoor space of what was once Morton's, now unrecognizable beneath an overlay of marble and frills.
The big news is the generous outdoor terrace hidden from the street by a tall and very green hedge. If you can't get a table there, angle for one set up half inside the French doors, half out, the better to peruse the scene.
Cecconi's biggest surprise is reserved for the prices, which are remarkably moderate. At lunch, there's even a two-course prix-fixe menu for $15, which changes every day. Recently, it was strozzapreti (priest-strangler pasta) with a vibrant green pesto and a salad embellished with thick slices of rosy roast beef and the house dressing. The greens were a standard mesclun mix but fresh and good. My lunch companions ordered a la carte -- sweet diver scallops seared in a cast-iron pan, and moist steelhead trout with grilled eggplant. Plus, valet parking is free at breakfast and lunch, so you're already ahead.
The service, though, could use some seasoning. Some of the servers are too pushy, and sometimes service is confused, with plates going to the wrong person or even the wrong table. Meanwhile, chef Paderno and his kitchen, which boasts not one but two wood-burning ovens, is turning out credible thin-crusted pizzas, fine pasta dishes and simple, fresh main courses.
Call for a dinner reservation, and you'll get the usual runaround -- 6 p.m. or 10. Fine, I'll take the 10 p.m. reservation, but when I show up a little early, tables are already emptying out and it feels a little dead except for the birthday party in the semi-private room. Yet it seems to take the staff, moving like molasses, 20 minutes to set up the table. At a Chinese restaurant, the table would be cleared and set up in the time it took you to walk from the maitre d's desk to the table, even if it was just 10 steps away. And yet in a place that's supposed to be all about scene, the crowd isn't very glamorous and the food, surprisingly, is much better than it needs to be. Go figure.
Next to us, three guys playing with their cellphones strike poses so elaborately relaxed their chairs threaten to topple over backward. On the other side, a well-muscled gentleman in black T-shirt and black jeans works hard to impress the two women with him. Buddy, I want to say, you might do better if you stopped calling women "girls." You need to get out more. Other tables are occupied by couples who look and act as if they're on a date for a matchmaking show.
Never mind. Here comes our pizza from the wood-burning oven. The thin, crisp crust is blanketed in melted fontina cheese and supposedly black truffles, but it's hard to tell since the kitchen has amped up the flavor with truffle oil to give the pie what many people identify now as the taste and smell of truffles.
Not for me, this pizza, though it's not bad. I prefer the simpler and more class- ic one with mozzarella di bufala and tomato sauce. As for other starters, what L.A. Italian doesn't have fried calamari on its menu? Probably not a one. And Cecconi's is no exception.
In this case, the calamari are big ones, napkin ring-size and very tender. The dough is pale, though, instead of crisp and golden. Either Paderno isn't going for crispy, or the oil wasn't hot enough. They come, though, with an excellent aioli, silky and delicious.
The star starter is salmon tartare prepared table-side with olive oil and lemon. The server will ask if you want it a little spicy. Say yes, and he'll add some finely minced red jalapenos. The salmon is perky and fresh, cut into half-inch dice, the whole thing bright and refreshing. Cobb salad gets a B, though, because the dressing is all at the bottom and the bacon is wadded up in places. However, I very much like the idea that you can get a half-portion of salads and pastas.