As a more or less lifelong Angeleno and restaurant lover, I felt it my duty to eat at the famed L'Orangerie before its much-talked about closing on December 31st. How could I not? After all, in the December issue of Gourmet, Coleman Andrews observes how upon its opening, "L'Orangerie quickly became the city's ultimate special-occasion restaurant." We reserved this dinner as our first date night away from the baby, now an ultimate special event, five nights before L'Orangerie shut down forever.
We arrived for our early bird 6:00 reservation on the 26th gussied up and ready to continue the eating binge that is the holiday season. With my post-partum fashion choices still limited, I squeezed into my black satin Behnaz Sarafpour dress that I really shouldn't wear for another few months. As I was wondering aloud if I was dressed up enough, I got into a heated debate about the relevance and merit of dress codes in certain situations (me for, my dad against).
I had to step it up. This is L'Orangerie, the little slice of upscale France in L.A. that isn't just another luxury retail boutique, the hallowed establishment which, according to Andrews, was "the kind of place you saved up for, bought new clothes for, begged to be taken to. Everything about it was warm, lively, stylish, sexy, and it made its customers feel that way, too."
Sexy was the last word that came to mind as we walked across the marble floor past the large mirrored holiday decorations and were seated -- both of us facing outward, an arrangement I like -- on the ivory and blue Jacquard upholstered banquette. We were the youngest people in the quiet room, which filled up around 7:00, by twenty years or so. Plenty of men were following the more updated standards of California dress, i.e. jackets but no tie, and those who did adhere looked like they were donning dull, stiff Brooks Brothers duds. If you want to see edgier fashion and people with style, you're much better off sharing company with diners at Sona down the street.
If L'Orangerie weren't closing, it would be in serious need of an overhaul. While Andrews's opinion that its end represents a loss to Los Angeles, a city that will now not have any traditional, haute cuisine style restaurants with all the trimmings, L'Orangerie's era seemed to me to be over. The ceiling acoustic tiles were dirty, the bathrooms in need of upgrading, the soundtrack dreadful, and little minor details off. For example, dinner napkins were placed next to the sinks to pass for those thicker hand towels often found in upscale hotels and restaurants. Better to use rough paper towels that don't fall apart when wet. Minor stuff, but these little things matter in aggregate at a place like L'Orangerie, with its high aspirations and rep.
In sum, it felt stale, like a vision of classical French charm refracted through the lens of 1970's Los Angeles. Nothing wrong with that if it were at the top of its game. But if classics like Le Cirque can flourish after Adam Tihany floor-to-ceiling makeovers, why in theory couldn't L'Orangerie?
The staff also seemed harried. We sat for a few minutes studying the menu and needing to run some things by the waiter, who didn't come to check on us until I shot him a look. Did we look indecisive? If we did, I would've appreciated him asking us if he could help answer our questions sooner. The sommelier was helpful and chatty, until we actually ordered our wine and he didn't open and pour it. He only rushed by to quickly ask if we liked the Vacqueyras.
Once our mouths got busy after the lackluster lentil and yogurt amuse bouche, however, my critical mind slowed down. The three appetizers were ordered went down real easy. I was starting to regret not having ordered the long tasting menu when I tasted the velvety artichoke ravioli with shaved black truffles, rock lobster with mango accompaniment, and vegetable "risotto." The latter was a mixture of vegetables slow-cooked risotto style, all the way down to the firm texture of the veggies themselves. Three buttons of truffles dotted the top of the creamy and light concoction.
When the St. Jacques arrived, I forgave the superfluous streaks of reductions and token foam dollops that appeared on most of the plates. The four scallops were seared to perfection, and the cauliflower puree was solid enough to support them while being silky; cauliflower and seafood can be so good together. The only misstep was the not-quite-crisp triangle crisp, which tasted like it involved squid ink plus a lot more salt. An exception to my general love of squid and its byproducts. Maybe this touch was a holdover from the days of Ludo.
There's a snafu with the lamb. The waiter forgot to tell us the kitchen was out of the loin and only the much more expensive chops remained on the menu. We were surprised when we got the chops, but at least we were charged for the less expensive dish. It turned out to be a happy accident, because the tender, rich lamb was extraordinary.
We were in for the real treat at the dessert course. No expectations were disappointed here, since L'Orangerie was the perfect place to order the ultimate classics like souffle and wafer-thin, absolutely perfect apple tart. The chocolate souffle was like a kid's food fantasy gone wild, with a supple egg-shaped scoop of vanilla ice cream, a gravy boat of chocolate sauce and chilled silver bucket o' perfect whipped cream. I love a dish with lots of accoutrements. The intensity was almost too much to handle, but believe me, I gave it the old college try.
Though the kitchen was totally on, the front of the house didn't give me much reason to shed tears over L'Orangerie's closing. I left feeling only a slight tinge of premature nostalgia. Too bad, because the restaurant really could've gone out with a bang. Instead the staff seemed either not entirely motivated, or more likely (and to be fair), overwhelmed from all the customers demanding L'Orangerie's last meals. It would be great if eventually something were to step in to fill its fancy shoes. In the meantime, we'll find other reasons to get dressed up, or so I hope we will without having to fly to New York.