Dining Out: A divine experience all around

The charm of Sweetsalt Food Shop in Toluca Lake begins with the wooden sign outside advertising its name, evoking the feeling that you've been transported to a wonderful experience of a forgotten era. And it continues when you step inside and view marble and wood-topped tables against a wall with a wainscot bottom. This place has an aura of sensory pleasure, which is akin to the meal in which you are soon to partake.

The menu is not extensive but well designed so that there is enough variety to give people choices without assaulting them. We began by sharing a small tomato bisque ($4) that was served in a white porcelain soufflé dish and came piping hot — so much that we had to take small bites as it cooled, but it was delicious. The temperature was well matched with a kick of pepper and very soothing. We tried to guess the spices and may have detected a hint of paprika. Whatever it was, we thoroughly enjoyed it.

For me, the heart of palm salad ($7) featuring avocado, red pepper, heirloom tomatoes, red onion, mandarin oranges and grapefruit served over mixed baby greens was a dream that combined my favorite salad ingredients. It was topped with a delicious sherry and red wine dressing. Everything was fresh and crisp and melded together wonderfully. This is a salad I could eat several times every week.

My son the cheese fiend ordered a grilled cheese sandwich ($8) with a combination of cheddar, gruyere and manchego on panini. The thick, gooey cheese interior was a perfect foil to the lightly grilled bread. I'm not generally a huge fan of grilled cheese, but it was most satisfying.

The short rib roll ($10) is a sandwich with braised beef short rib, onion confit, goat cheese, roasted garlic and wild arugula on a brioche bun. The marinade for the beef is sweet and heavenly, and the meat is extremely tender. The onion, cheese and garlic make a great trio of flavors.

The only disappointment was the champagne chicken sandwich ($9) with shredded chicken, seedless grapes, celery, cucumber, shallots, champagne and goat cheese dressing on brioche. I did like the generous vegetables that added some nice texture, but the taste of the chicken got lost in the buttery brioche. My recommendation would be to add more chicken to the sandwich or pump up the spices so the chicken salad stakes out its own identity.

And I'll forgive that minor misstep because the shrimp po' boy sandwich ($10) with Creole shrimp, crushed potato chips, spicy aioli, red onion, lettuce and tomato more than makes up for it. It's everything in harmony of taste and texture, and marvelous matched to a fresh ciabatta roll. If Oprah is allowed to have her favorite sandwich, I just may claim this one as mine.

Taking into consideration the first half of the restaurant's name, we were compelled to sample some desserts. Perusing the large glass case I saw dishes of what seemed to be chocolate and vanilla pudding. After a few minutes with a handy torch they became crème brulee ($3) accented with fresh blackberries. In three words, they were: creamy, dreamy, sinful.

As I was paying for the aforementioned desserts I glanced down at a menu, and the words "chocolate caramel bread pudding" ($3) called out to me. Every bite of this pudding was indulgence gone wild. It was perfectly sweet and moist.

We were wisely warned to go on a weekend when things are quieter because I'm told the weekday lunchtime line goes out the door, and the wait can exceed 30 minutes. If that's the case, bring a friend, your appetite and some patience, but all will be richly rewarded.

Infobox What: Sweetsalt Food ShopWhere: 10218½ Riverside Drive, Toluca LakeHours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through SundayPrices: Salads $7 to $9; sandwiches $8 to $10; desserts $3 to $3.75Information: (818) 509-7790 or www.sweetsaltfood.com

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