An unwritten rule about dining out: Don't eat in an otherwise empty restaurant. Chances are, there's good reason your party is the only one.
Of course, my job doesn't allow me the luxury of bolting when I'm surrounded by empty tables. As a result, I sometimes have the unpleasant experience of realizing the truth in the credo. Like the time when my husband and I were apparently the evening's first -- and last -- patrons in a relatively new Spanish eatery in Hollywood called Estrella del Mar. When we saw that we would be the only patrons, he wanted to turn tail. I insisted we press on, hoping to discover an authentic gem; instead, we found the culinary equivalent of costume jewelry paste. To top it off, after my negative review was published, a scandal ensued: The owner drew up a petition, wrote letters to the editor, and took out advertisements against me, accusing me of all sorts of journalistic wrongdoing. In an interesting twist, she was later indicted for embezzling almost a million bucks from her day job to finance that poor attempt at a restaurant.
So you can see why I was a bit reluctant to enter the Meridien, the French-Creole eatery and nightclub that opened two months ago on the site of the star-crossed Estrella del Mar. Especially when we noticed that, once again, we'd be the singular party in the establishment, whose Mediterranean appointments -- tile floors, wall murals, potted palms -- seemed awfully familiar. As George Carlin might note, the situation was so déjà vu it was vujà dé. Once more, my party of four balked on the doorstep. Once more, I led my dear friends unto the breach. But this time, instead of ineptitude, we found unfailing professionalism.
While never putting pressure on us, the maitre d' was always directly on hand. When he perceived that we were interested in wine, he brought over a new vintage the management had been sampling in anticipation of expanding the admittedly short list. When we asked whether he preferred the shrimp Marengo or the salmon with crawfish as an entrée, he gave us a typically Gallic (and perfectly clear) opinion: "Salmon is always salmon." And when we were ready to leave, he presented us with menus, neatly folded inside envelopes that had business cards stapled to them -- before we had even asked. Here, finally, is a restaurant that understands its role as a new business: Win customers.
Which is not to say that everything about the Meridien is as even-keeled as its name. The nightclub part of the package, all flashing disco lights and booming pop music, counteracts the Big Easy theme; a free-form jazz trio performing on the built-in stage, though somewhat clichéd, might work better. Cheddar-jalapeño bread was day-old, a fact the kitchen tried to disguise by warming it. The spinach salad with fresh sardines could have used some less fishy specimens, though the chopped spinach tossed with a champagne vinaigrette was a delectable base for the three seared fish. The shrimp Marengo main course, while wrapped in a delicious tomato-based combination of bacon, mushrooms, garlic, and shallots, was regrettably overcooked.
But overall, the only real fault of the Meridien is its lack of comforting, atmospheric buzz, a trait that will most surely be corrected with time. All it will take is for Hollywood's legion dining community to sample the rich gumbo, hearty with chunks of chicken and sausage and flavored appropriately with shrimp stewed in their shells. Another starter, oysters Bienville, pleased us both with the fresh plumpness of the baked oysters and with the just-zesty character of the breadcrumb stuffing, savory with cayenne pepper and Parmesan cheese.
Blackened sirloin is probably expected fare, but here it's given oomph with green peppercorns and added richness with a cognac-cream demi-glace. Otherwise, the menu items aren't particularly inventive -- you'll see a lot of concoctions with a base sauce of wine, onions, peppers, garlic, shallots, and tomatoes -- so look for subtle variations on the theme. The best of these might have been the wonderful catfish á la méridien, a flaky fillet dressed with tomatoes, celery, mushrooms, and garlic, plus a touch of Parmesan. Then again, there's some argument for the pan-seared duck breast napped with a sauce of red wine, diced tomatoes, and onion, with sautéed pears added for textural emphasis.
Pears were very much on the agenda the night we visited, with that particular fruit starring in two desserts. We'd ordered the pear tarte Tatin, a silky, caramelized creation, but wound up accidentally being served a whole poached pear coated with bittersweet chocolate. Not a problem, the maitre d' assured us; keep the pear and enjoy it on the house. As an extra-thoughtful gesture, he also brought us four glasses of port, though we'd requested only two. The Meridien might have the ghost of former occupant Estrella del Mar to overcome, but its top-notch management and French-Creole focus will go a long way toward exorcism.
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