Los Angeles — They say that the proof of a great meal is the sense that you want to begin all over again as soon as you've finished. I've just come back from eating some of the best meals of my life, no, not in France or Italy, but in sunny Southern California. They were so good that the second I got back to Manhattan I began plotting a return.
Maybe it was the weather, with everything brighter and more beautiful during a balmy week in January when California looked like a David Hockney painting.
Enroute everything from the juicy steaks to the crisp fresh salad in bottomless salad bowls in TWA's ambassador class luncheonette got my highest rating. It's the most stylish ''business'' class service I've seen and well worth noting.
My first exposure to the pleasures of ''nouvelle'' California was at Trumps at Melrose and Robertson Streets where ''design'' folk congregate in a place that is light and large and cream-colored.
What strikes everyone who goes to LA is the space that's offered up with the insouciance of a land where they think nothing of driving an hour to get to dinner if necessary.
Trumps provides bizarre combinations that work surprisingly well. Potato pancakes and goat cheese with sauteed apples, for instance, is not a dish your mother ever made, but is as winning a combination as poached eggs with roasted peppers and anchovy sauce or subtle, pungent smoked chicken salad.
At Trumps, at five, there are clever, delicate sandwiches; cucumber, smoked salmon, and endive fingers with cream cheese. Then come the scones, more like delicious raisin buns served with pots of honey, clotted cream, and strawberry jam.
They are followed by a plateful of crisp tiny palmiers, shortbread hearts, rich, rich brownies, and little jam tarts.
Eating begets eating as everyone knows, so in spite of yourself by dinner time you are ready for dinner. As a friend I traveled with said, ''It's two hours since lunch. When do we eat?''
Spago on Sunset Boulevard is the chic-est eatery in town, a post-modernist palace that looks like a cross between a garage and an Italian design fair. Everyone stands around looking for celebrities and glancing at the dazzling view of Hollywood.
The carpaccio, marinated raw beef sliced very thin, is juicy and translucent, the grilled fresh tuna bland but delicate, the squab with pears succulent - but the piece de resistance here is the pizza.
This is not your ''hold the pepperoni, extra cheese'' sort of pizza. This is a plate-sized delicacy made on the spot in an open oven, with oddities such as artichokes and goat cheese on an exquisite, thin, crackly crust.
There was a tender goat cheese and a gorgonzola unlike any I've ever tasted, both pungent and sweet, at Rex, Il Ristorante on Olive Street in downtown Los Angeles.
It is a quite extraordinary place, the set for a Fellini movie made in the Hollywood of the '30s. The art deco furnishings are very glamorous; the crystal, china, and silver are exquisite. Best of all, in spite of the grandeur, the service at Rex is as friendly as that at the corner trattoria.
From among the marvels to start with, there are the terrines of duck with pistachio and rabbit in rosemary, and the fettucine with olives or porcini or red beets in butter and basil.
We chose two incredible salads: one of pheasant breast and black truffles and another called Insalata Ricca with shrimp, scallops, goose liver, and black truffles.
The filet of salmon came in a green sauce of incredible delicacy and the scallops with pink peppercorns were little disks of silken bliss.
The rabbit with Seattle honey and grapefruit slices, the veal cutlet with truffles, cheese, bell pepper, and spinach sound overly fancy but the taste is delicious.
If the sweets at Rex - the chocolate and caramel ice cream, the huge marrons glacesm, the candied grapefruit - dance as sugarplums in the memory, the chocolate cake at Michael's was their equal.
They say Barbra Streisand goes to Michael's for the chocolate cake which sounds like the stuff of mere movie gossip until you taste it. Then it sounds like plain good sense. Not that between dinner at Rex and dinner at Michael's anyone abstained.
There were the best gnocchi I've ever tasted at the Westbeach Cafe in Venice, an incredible sampling of the emerging Franco-Japonais cuisine at La Petite Chaya -poached fish on ribbons of vegetables, sashimi in mustard sauce, and mousses of avocado and foie gras.
On the final night we drove to Michael's on an out of the way street in Santa Monica. There is a pretty, sleek, dining room, but it is the covered garden that is intriguing with heaters hung jauntily on tall poles. It's straight out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.
The waitress, who turned out to be a dancer studying astronomy, described the list of specials with real style and no little wit. If the list was complicated, the food itself was neither mannered nor silly, and the fish terrine and pastry shells stuffed with fish and spinach were delicious.
Composed salads at Michael's might include one of char-broiled squab, spinach , and raspberry vinaigrette, another of papaya, shrimp, avocado, and watercress. Best of all: frise aux lardonsm, that simple French starter of curly endive and chunks of bacon in a warm vinaigrette.
And in spite of the presence of char-broiled pork tenderloin, sweetbreads with morels, and breast of duck, I had what was the best, tenderest most succulent grilled chicken I have ever had with the very best French fries.
Then there was that chocolate cake. All of which made me think that in California it is just possible that you can have your cake and eat it. Again and again.