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Hotel Bel-Air Restaurant: Date with a grande dame

ONE warm October evening, you're sitting outside with friends under trellises trained with bougainvillea, about to begin dinner on the terrace of one of the most glamorous hotels in the world. The wine's magnificent, the china's gorgeous. A plate of risotto is set before you, preceded by an amazing aroma -- the first Piedmont white truffles of the season. The waiter ceremoniously displays the prized specimen -- the truffle -- then shaves it in a gorgeous flurry over your dish. Oh, a little more, why not, let's live a little. Soon it's time for the main course, line-caught Dover sole meunière. The waiter presents it to you in all its aromatic glory, then deftly fillets it table-side before placing it before you, tender and delicate and just right.

That's the kind of scenario we're expecting at the Hotel Bel-Air Restaurant, where the Alba white truffle risotto comes with a $48 price tag and the Dover sole costs $62. But though the outdoor setting is glorious, those dishes land with a thud. We never see the truffle or a shaver; there are just a few scrappy pieces already mixed into a mushroom risotto. The Dover sole comes to the table already filleted, and it's overcooked, so it's lost that beautiful circular shape. You can't even tell it's sole.

The service is friendly and warm -- these waiters really seem to be doing their best -- but it seems as though there's no one in charge, no one setting the bar as high as it should be in such a setting. What's the general manager thinking? There are no amuses bouches (although I dropped almost $450 on dinner for two three nights earlier). There are no mignardises (beautiful little sweets) after dinner, even when the bill, before tax and tip, is $884 for four.

Off to a good start

ON each of three visits, one for Sunday brunch and two for dinner, everything starts out well. My guests and I are politely greeted, and the hostess accommodates our requests to sit on the patio or inside, even when we change our minds at the last minute. On one visit, I arrive with friends a few minutes early and we want to have a drink at the bar before dinner. Not only is that fine, but the hostess asks whether we'd rather be fetched when our table is ready or simply come back when we're ready for our table. In the bar, no problem to transfer the bar tab to our dinner check; we don't even need to tell them our name, though the bar is packed.

But each time, the service quickly falls apart as the meal wears on. As we're seated, one waiter asks whether we'd like a cocktail. No, we just had one, but we'd like a wine list. He brings one, but no menus, and we're abandoned for 15 minutes. Who can choose a wine if you don't know what you're eating? A server comes around presenting a basket of gorgeous breads, but getting him to identify them is like pulling teeth.

I wish I could say the food is so great that the service barely matters. But at one dinner, grilled Canadian foie gras with warmed Honeycrisp apple is overcooked, and it's tiny -- a sliver no bigger than a potato chip, for $28. (It's better on another visit, and twice the size.) Pairing overcooked elbow macaroni with black truffles and brie gratin with a sautéed blue prawn is ill-considered -- the briny flavor of the prawn clashes with the brie.

Dill and chives overpower the mosaic-like terrine of smoked salmon held together by crème fraîche, though the frisée salad on the side is appealing and nicely dressed.

The $62 plâteau de fruits de mer for two isn't much of a plâteau, just a small plate with two oysters, two small, flavorless overcooked shrimp with the texture of pencil erasers, some Dungeness crab that tastes as though it was cooked in dishwater, and half of a very small lobster. And those oysters -- nothing exotic such as Raspberry Points or even Malpeques, but rather Blue Points, filled, incomprehensibly, with chopped raw tuna. Roast chicken must have gone through the deflavorizing machine. Hard to imagine we're in a world-class hotel.

One night, I'm curious about the tasting menu, but my group doesn't know if they want to commit to it. No problem, says the waiter, anyone at the table can order it, and the rest can order what they like. Fantastic -- because my husband and our friend are eyeing the 12-ounce Kagoshima Kobe Châteaubriand for two. For $300, it must be pretty spectacular.

Tiny tastes

Ialmost fall off my chair when the first course of my five-course tasting menu arrives, "Balik salmon, domestic caviar." My eyes are riveted to the two dime-size dots of crème fraîche topped with about an eighth of a teaspoon of caviar. Are they serious? This is domestic, not Caspian Sea. Why so stingy? There is some very high-quality caviar harvested in the Sacramento River delta, but this ain't it: These fish eggs are mushy. The salmon is wonderful, but now I'm in a bad mood.

Next comes two seared scallops with a little pan juice and "tomato fondue." It's not bad at all, but the lovely, minerally, bone-dry German Riesling that's poured with it (I've asked for the tasting menu paired with wines) is completely wrong with those Mediterranean flavors.

I know a dozen home cooks who could have done a better job with the main course, osso bucco with saffron-perfumed risotto Milanese. The meat's a tad undercooked and the rice is a bit mushy; there's nothing interesting or refined about it.

Ah, here comes the Kobe Châteaubriand. Finally, a dish that's presented table-side! Usually Japanese Kobe beef is brought to the table before it's cooked so diners can see the beautiful marbling that gives it its incomparable flavor and texture. But here the waiter brings it, hoisted on a giant Boos cutting board, already cooked. It looks a little shrunken, comically lonely sitting in the middle of that big expanse of wood.

The menu says "choice of accompaniments," and the waiter has told the Kobe guys to choose two sides, so they get greens with pancetta (the greens turn out to be broccolini), and a soggy, runny eggplant Parmesan. They're also offered two sauces: béarnaise and a wine sauce. The waiter spoons them on either side of the meat.

The Châteaubriand is fantastically rich and wonderful, perfectly cooked medium-rare. The sauces and sides just get in the way. The guys push everything off to the side and enjoy the beef. It's traditional Châteaubriand, a grilled filet about 1 3/4 inches thick, and while béarnaise is the traditional sauce, it should be thick as mayonnaise, not runny, as it is here.

I wish I had just stopped at that taste of steak.

But next for me is an awful, powerful Gorgonzola tart with a limp little crust.

Our friend had expressed interest in the dessert on my tasting menu, a Black Mission fig soufflé with crème fraîche ice cream. I'm happy to let him have it because I had it on another visit, but it was overcooked. I'm going to be sure, when they bring the dessert menus, to request that it's not overcooked.

What's the hurry?

BUT, blam! Though we had to wait eons between courses (45 minutes was the longest), not a minute after the Gorgonzola tart is cleared, the soufflé lands before me. I'm aghast. My friends haven't even seen dessert menus! Well, the waiter says, that's the problem when one person wants to order the tasting menu. My jaw drops -- he himself had encouraged me to do that.

We persuade him to remove the dessert and bring dessert menus to everyone. I ask him to make another soufflé for my friend and make sure it's not overcooked. Our other friend orders a chocolate trio -- soufflé, Napoleon and truffle snowballs. My husband orders a banana-walnut gâteau and blueberry custard. I can't find anything that speaks to me. But we have some wine left in the bottle.

Surely there's a fantastic cheese cart in a place like this, right? Wrong. When I ask about the cheese selection, the waiter doesn't know. He hesitates. Maybe I'll change my mind? No, I'd like to know what the cheeses are. I have to ask three times. He goes off to the kitchen and comes back with the report: Humboldt Fog, Petit Basque and Manchego. A California goat cheese, a hard sheep's-milk cheese from France, a hard sheep's-milk cheese from Spain. What kind of selection is that? Little neighborhood cafes do better than that these days.

The biggest shock comes when we get the bill. We knew it would be wildly expensive -- we ordered extravagantly (though our wine order was modest). The shock comes because we were charged $24 for the two sides that the menu said came with the Châteaubriand. The waiter agrees to remove the charge.

So, what's to like at Hotel Bel-Air Restaurant?

The terrace is lovely. Not so the dining room, which is a very stodgy hotel in need of a makeover (after taking a look, none of my guests on any of the three visits wanted to sit there).

The desserts aren't bad, though the fig soufflé is overcooked again, and not very figgy.

The wine service, headed up by a new sommelier, Emmanuel Faure, is pretty good. Faure is happy to suggest something reasonably priced and has some good finds up his sleeve from the 1,600-label cellar. (Someone needs to do a better job of making sure the wineglasses are filled, though.)

The $65 Sunday "Champagne brunch" is pleasant -- it's fabulous to sit outside, with the fragile bougainvillea blossoms softly dropping on the table. The "Champagne," identified on the menu as Mumm's Bel Air Cuvée, is poured freely throughout brunch -- either in a mimosa or on its own. Tiny detail: It's not Champagne; it's a California sparkling wine, Mumm Napa.

The appetizers, on that one visit, are pretty good. A mint-tinged floating island of meringue tops a cold sweet pea soup -- that's a terrific idea, well-executed. The lobster pot pie has a tender crust and nice chunks of lobster. Herb-crusted Chilean sea bass (the waiter assures me it's from a sustainable fishery) comes perfectly cooked, served with a delicate French lentil salad. Two other main courses, however, arrive cold, and the Kobe burger with fried egg, truffles and Gruyère is way overcooked, to boot. For dessert, the apple tarte Tatin looks perfect, but it has a soggy crust and undercooked, flavorless apples. For that kind of money, the brunch isn't nearly as good as it should be.

There is one place here where you can get the luxurious flourishes you dream of in a place like this, and that's in the bar, where Antonio Castilla de la Gala runs his magic up and down the piano, putting ornaments on standards like there's no tomorrow. The wood-paneled room, with a fireplace and worn leather chairs, feels like a cozy library in an English manor house. They mix a mean Manhattan and a perfect martini. They've got a number of great single-malt Scotches. I'd happily pop in anytime.

Just don't ask me to stay for dinner.

brenner@latimes.com

Hotel Bel-Air Restaurant

Rating: half a star

Location: 701 Stone Canyon Road, Los Angeles; (310) 472-1211; www.hotelbelair.com.

Ambience: A beautiful, spacious, comfortable bougainvillea-covered terrace. The inside dining room is formal and a bit stiff.

Service: Earnest and warm, but clueless about what the level should be in the restaurant of a world-class hotel. There are frequently long waits between courses, with no explanation.

Price: Dinner appetizers, $17 to $48; entrees, $29 to $62; steaks, $45 to $300 (for a Kobe Châteaubriand for two); desserts, $14. Five-course tasting menu, $95 ($145 with wine pairings). Brunch, $65 per person.

Best dishes: Lobster pot pie, chilled sweet pea soup with minted floating island of meringue, herb-crusted Chilean sea bass with French lentil salad, Kagoshima Kobe Châteaubriand for two.

Wine list: Wide ranging, with a good number of affordable wines of interest. Corkage fee, $40.

Best table: One in the center part of the terrace.

Details: Breakfast, 7 to 10:30 a.m., Mondays through Saturdays, until 10 a.m. Sundays. Brunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays. Lunch, noon to 2 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Tea, 3 to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Dinner, 6:30 to 9:30 nightly.

To see a photo gallery, go to latimes.com/food.

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.

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