Sheltering Sky 

Wednesday, Jul 15 1998

Aristotle said that men are hotter than women. Men are so hot, he said, that sometimes they burn off their hair. Want proof? Just look at the dearth of bald women. (Not surprisingly, in the likenesses of Aristotle I've seen he's bald as an egg.) I prefer to think that Aristotle was wrong-headed and politically reprehensible in his assessment of the sexes, but after all the time I've spent in restaurants, I'm beginning to see his point. All year long, I freeze.

In the winter, I go out to eat, my purse bulging with extra sweater and socks. For the actual weather and elements, I've dressed appropriately, but once inside, I start shivering like a Chihuahua. That's me, huddled at the table guzzling hot soup and steaming tea, with my coat over my legs like a lap robe.

You'd think that when the weather warms up - which it has been very slow to do this year - I might put my sweaters in mothballs and my socks in storage. Not on your life, for next comes air conditioning.

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The problem is this: Those in control of the thermostat - waiters, waitresses, managers - are often engaged in far more aerobic and calorie-burning activity than the sedentary, calorie-consuming diners. I've also learned not to sit near an open kitchen: Where people are slaving over hot stoves, the air conditioners really roar. Yet even in a cozy-looking booth, I too often am assaulted by a chill wind billowing down from a ceiling vent. In no time I feel like a head of lettuce in a crisper, a frosted martini glass.

And I am not alone. Looking around at other women, I see that those who are less than 20 pounds overweight are often clutching their upper arms, sprouting visible gooseflesh and discreetly trying to use their napkins as comforters. Skinny women can look downright racked. Even some men - though maybe not the bald ones - are often cold. (On the other hand, the overweight mother of a friend used to seek refuge in air-conditioned restaurants and rated a restaurant according to its frost power.)

All of which is a long way of saying that the best thing about summer is eating outside on patios, where the great thermostat in the sky is in the hands of a power greater than the maitre d's. (Most Southern California patios are heated during the winter, but again, it's hard to hit the proper note; usually, one feels like a frozen cutlet in a frying pan, crisping on one side, solid ice on the other.) On a true summer evening in Los Angeles, however, the air can be so warm and smooth and deep blue that it's enchanting, exhilarating and downright buoyant.

I have happily been eating on great patios all over town lately, albeit sometimes still armed with sweaters and toting a wide scarf that can double as a throw. Here are some of my favorites. (Prices given are for dinner entrees.)

Enchanted Gardens

SPAGO: The patio is the heart of this vast, beautiful restaurant; its sunlight and foliage inform and enhance every seat, inside and out. Tables sit among small, graceful elms. Orchids bloom around a trickling, tall stone a fountain that's inscribed with the word passion in 30 languages. We may not need such a broad clue as to the nature of this restaurant, however: Passion is obvious in the exuberant decor, in the calm, friendly, professional service and, most of all, on the plate. Lee Hefter, Wolfgang Puck and Sherry Yard are cooking their hearts out here, bringing us into summer with the best fresh ingredients to be found. Try agnolotti stuffed with rich, sweet corn puree and topped with morel or chantarelle mushrooms, or the fresh pea soup, or a beet salad with goat cheese and hazelnuts. There's always stunning fresh fish - line-caught wild French loup de mer, or rosy-skinned rouget, or black bass prepared Hong Kong-style. The duck breast is served with Chinese-style green beans; lamb chops come with couscous. Calves' liver is the most tender and tasty in town, and an orange-inflected osso bucco is transcendent - I'd like a whole bowl of that marrow, thanks. For dessert there are Adriatic figs with hot mulberries and a ginger cream - and don't ever pass up Yard's passionfruit sorbet. An early dinner at 5:30 or 6 has you dining during twilight, surely some of the most bewitching hours in this garden. 176 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 385-0880. Main courses $13.50-$32.

MICHAEL'S: Outside, on the patio at Michael's, the sea air is sweet and cool, the afternoon light pale and rarefied. Water trickles over stones into a shallow pool; hummingbirds hover. The greenery is well-established, lush; impatiens bloom with vigor. A huge spoked "leaning" arch of rusted steel, by Loren Madsen, rises from one flower bed; four bronze panels titled Four Seasons, by sculptor Robert Graham, span the back wall. This patio is nothing if not a paean to the beneficial effects of art, sunshine and affluence. Nineteen years ago, Michael's introduced us to the idea of relaxed formality, pedigreed ingredients - and, briefly, to $12 ice cream. Michael's was also one of the great seminal restaurants of California cooking; the kitchen launched a thousand chefs - or at least a couple dozen, including Mark Peel, Nancy Silverton, Ken Frank and Kazuto Matsusaka. In the intervening years, the restaurant has shed much of its snob appeal and drifted into a slightly more reasonable price range. The cooking is no longer cutting-edge, but the kitchen still uses only superb ingredients, and handles them with skill and respect. The wait staff, all in khakis and green chambray shirts, are knowledgeable and congenial. For lunch, I recommend the tiger-prawn pizza and/or the composed salads, especially the nicoise with seared tuna and the chicken-and-goat-cheese. At dinner, try the endive-and-bacon salad and fresh fish, or live dangerously and eat the truly delicious "Grandma Moses" barbecued pork tenderloin. Desserts are still too expensive and ordinary - but you might have one as an excuse to linger a bit longer. 1147 Third St., Santa Monica; (310) 451-0843. Entrees $19.50-$29.50.

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