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L'Orangerie Through the Years: The Reviews

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It's three days and counting, and POOF!, L'Orangerie will all of a sudden be Nobu. Gone are les oeufs, the Champagne, the giddy Gerard and Virginie Ferry. The restaurant, though never topping three stars, was widely known as the last bastion of fine European-style dining in L.A., the most expensive restaurant in town, and only did away with it's jacket and tie policy in the late 90's. This week, we thought back on L'Orangerie, the controversies, the chefs, and now reviews from years gone by. Cue up Auld Lang Syne and read on.

1985: NY Times restaurant critic Bryan Miller dines at L'Orangerie for a LA "power scene" piece. The room is grander than the food, and the staff amicable, not stuffy. Dining here in the 80's certainly had to inspire the dining scenes in Steve Martin's "L.A. Story."

1991: Ruth Reichl tries endlessly to convice her Reluctant Gourmet dining partner to dine at the "new" L'Orangerie, where new chef Jean-Claude Parachini just took over. Although the food is good, she missed the old menu. In the end, Ruth gets her RG in the door, but he isn't wowed and begs: "Don't ever ask me to go back to that place."

1993: Reichl returned, more satisfied with Parachini's menu, though still not completely convinced. More importantly, she noted that after a $300,000 renovation, service and setting raised a notch: "A few years ago, a waiter at L'Orangerie arrived at my table and asked, 'Who gets the chicken?' That is not a question I want to answer when that chicken costs $28. At another long-gone dinner, my favorite dish, eggs with caviar, arrived with a big fingerprint emblazoned on the eggshell. The service here, in fact, has risen to such heights that L'Orangerie busboys outshine the waiters in most local restaurants."

Next up: The 2000s...

2001: After chef changes in 1995 and again in 1996, LA Times' new restaurant critic, S. Irene Virbila, steps in to review the institution when a new manager, a "slick new Web site," and unstuffy service help update the restaurant. Four years after chef Ludovic Lefebvre took over, she states that he was "finally coming into his own." And while she's excited by his risk taking in the kitchen, she calls several dishes "inedible." Still, two-and-a-half stars for L'Orangerie.

2003: Hitting the quarter century mark, more chef changes bring Christiphe Eme to helm the kitchen, and Miss Irene seems comfortably captivated by it all: "There's nothing else like it in Los Angeles--pure French, pure romance." Some dishes wow the critic; others dampen her mood, if only for inconsistency at such high prices. In the end, the rating stays the same as she quips, "The food, however delicious, is somehow more backdrop than center stage, the restaurant more a star than the chef. After 25 years, I guess that's about right."

2005: Another couple of chef changes, some legal woes for owner Gerard Ferry, and Miss Irene is back to see what new chef Christophe Bellanca is up to. Although she's still swept away by the glamour of the restaurant, the chef's more fashionable take on food doesn't go over too well. Her final assessment is grim:

"No doubt every chef L'Orangerie has hired has done good work in France, but somehow when it comes to cooking here, their food ends up remarkably similar. It's as if they're all working from the same fashion book, rifling the pages for ideas. Asian spices. Foam. Deconstructed something or other. But the ideas rarely coalesce into something alive and twitching. I don't know whether the kitchen is simply dysfunctional or whether the chef is not allowed the resources he needs to cook the way he was trained to cook. Whatever the reason, it's hard to find a truly memorable dish on L'Orangerie's menu.
But the egg and caviar was always a sure thing.

Elsewhere, Chowhounds spout off this month, and in 2005, 2004, and 2002.

A final thought: Maybe we didn't grow up dining at L'Orangerie, or even the likes of L'Orangerie, but any restaurant, anywhere, that lasts almost 30 years deserves a fond farewell. So to you, L'Orangerie, we bid adieu. Now bring on the sushi!

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