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Review: Akasha restaurant

Times Restaurant Critic

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Servers at Akasha wear organic cotton jeans and hemp aprons, takeout containers are biodegradable, coffee is fair-trade, and the wine list is almost exclusively composed of wines grown in either an organic and/or bio-dynamic way. All this could be tediously virtuous.

But this wildly successful green-leaning restaurant in Culver City is no holier-than-thou place. Chef-owner Akasha Richmond, former caterer and private chef to a health-conscious celebrity clientele and author of "Hollywood Dish," seems to have found the sweet spot: an everyday restaurant with healthful comfort food and an appealing urban vibe.

You can come for breakfast in the bakery, run over from one of the nearby movie or TV studios for lunch, meet a friend for dinner and come back for a drink after seeing a film or a play. Produce is organic and local whenever possible; meat, poultry and seafood is from sustainable sources. And you get two hours of free parking in the city lot around the corner.

A warm welcome

AS YOU sit down, someone will be over to the table with a tall half-loaf of mixed grain bread from Breadbar, Eric Kayser's West Hollywood (and Century City) bakery. It's a generous welcome that says something about the owner's spirit.

Start with one of her small thin-crusted pizzas. I keep going back for the one topped with superb La Quercia prosciutto from Iowa, with dark figs, wild arugula and cave-aged domestic blue cheese on a crackling elongated-oval crust. Everything is in balance -- not too much cheese or anything else -- and it makes a perfect appetizer for that first glass of wine, whether it's a Sonoma rosé or a glass of the cult favorite, the Prisoner, from Napa Valley. I've tried a couple of others, too, including the minimalist Margherita and a delicious vegetarian option topped with roasted squash, shiitake, caramelized onion and tomato and a dusting of truffled sea salt.

At the long L-shaped bar, every seat is occupied. Yes, this organic restaurant has a full bar and catches the trend for handcrafted cocktails with a Red Velvet margarita made with blood orange juice or the Akasha made with organic Rain vodka, cucumber and pineapple juices, plus agave nectar. A giant blackboard at the back lists these and the wines by the glass.

Two million dollars and change went into re-imagining the historic building that was once the Italian restaurant San Gennaro. And it shows. Designer Alexis Readinger has done a wonderful job of letting the ceilings soar. She's stripped the walls to bare brick, revealed glorious tall arched windows along the street, and hung huge parchment colored lights that float like mysterious sculptures high above the tables. You can read the menu and see your food, yet nothing glares or shines in your eye. The chairs are comfortable, the noise level is, shall we say, spirited but manageable, and if you want more quiet, there's always the bakery (which becomes an invitingly tranquil eating area during dinner service) or the sidewalk patio out front.

A winning crust

GRILLED artichoke with smoked paprika aioli is simple and gutsy. Another enticing first course is the savory tart. Early on it was a wild mushroom tart. Right now it's onion and tomato, but whatever the filling, the delicate crumbly crust stars. Indian-accented dishes, such as masala shrimp with tomato chutney and a soothing mint raita, are appealing, though you could wish for bigger, meatier shrimp. Asian touches work their way into the menu, too, as in the seared albacore lettuce wraps, essentially albacore tataki with a pile of tender butter lettuce leaves and a sweet-hot chile sauce -- heavy on the sweet -- to dip the packet in.

The menu curiously doesn't make a big deal of soups, just one a night, usually a vegetable puree with a spice twist. But recently matzo ball soup was sharing the billing with a cauliflower purée. The single matzo ball is moist and fluffy, but the chicken broth is so weak it's reminiscent of those packaged Knorr broths. Richmond can make a simple green salad with the best of them, but when she gets fancier -- I'm thinking of the turmeric-seared pears with arugula, goji berries and a slew of other ingredients -- she tends to over-embellish.

The good thing is that the chef seems to be always in -- not exactly in the kitchen but here somewhere, stopping by tables to say hello in her down-to-earth way, chatting up newcomers and overseeing what's coming out of her kitchen.

One night my friend Ava, who doesn't eat red meat, ordered one of the two dishes in the category "bowl," Punjabi mung beans and rice with spring vegetables, nan and a dab of chutney and raita. She usually orders fish, but this earthy Indian-accented plate appealed to her after a complicated day at work. She took a bite or two and looked up at me, her eyes dreamy, asking, "Did you ever eat at Golden Temple, a vegetarian restaurant on 3rd Street near Fairfax [Avenue] years ago? This tastes like a dish I loved there."

Actually, the chef cooked there early in her career and this is one of the dishes she made there. Though the Golden Temple was before my day, the dish seems like a blast of the counterculture past.

Fine and flavorful

RICHMOND scores, too, with her turkey burger laced with roasted peppers, olives and jalapeño, packing flavor -- and fire -- into what would otherwise be boring and bland. Wild Alaskan halibut with spinach and sheep's milk ricotta gnocchi and baby artichokes makes a good impression. Coleman steak is a nice piece of meat (order some of the delicious onion rings or sweet potato fries with ginger salt to go with it), only I don't understand why the chimichurri sauce isn't on the side instead of adorning the limp onions on top of the beef.

With the main courses, the difficulty of the stretch from caterer to full-fledged restaurateur shows most. The execution can be uneven, too. Roast Rosie chicken tastes like a real chicken but looks like something you'd get from an amateur cook who doesn't have experience in plating or making food look attractive. Asian-style short ribs are cloying. Lamb osso buco is a mess on the plate, braised too long and its flavor drowned out in a strong reduction. It's $30, incidentally, and the short ribs are $29. At that price point, Richmond is playing in the big leagues, competing with Lucques, or with Fraîche down the street.

Desserts from Verité Mazzola, who worked previously at Ford's Filling Station, add a grace note to the menu. Delicious house made ice creams come in unusual flavors. Chocolate-hemp anyone? Or a sorbet made from açai, a berry from the Amazon rain forest that our server asserts is loaded with antioxidants. Salty chocolate tart plays the flavors of chocolate and caramel against sea salt. There's also a surprisingly delicious rendition of that old '70s classic, carrot cake. This one comes in layers with organic cream cheese frosting -- and it's not too sweet, allowing you to actually taste the cake and the tangerine sorbet with it.

Opening Akasha has been a steep learning curve, but Richmond has done so much that's right with her namesake restaurant, I'm confident she'll pull it all together. Here's a fledgling restaurant with a strong point of view -- and a big dose of soul.

virbila@latimes.com

Akasha Rating: * 1/2 Location: 9543 Culver Blvd. (at Watseka Avenue), Culver City; (310) 845-1700; www.akasharestaurant.com Ambience: Lively, organic- oriented restaurant from former celebrity caterer Akasha Richmond with breakfast in the bakery, a full bar, plus lunch and dinner in the handsome, brick-walled dining room with soaring ceilings and tall, arched windows along Culver Boulevard. Sidewalk tables in front too. Service: Personable and attentive. Price: Dinner small plates, $7 to $12; pizza, $12 to $15; big plates, $14 to $32; desserts, $8 to $10. Lunch small plates, $7 to $10; salads, $12 to $16; larger bowls and plates, $12 to $15; burgers and sandwiches, $12 to $16; pizza, $12 to $15. Best dishes: La Quercia prosciutto pizza, onion and tomato tart, Punjabi mung beans and rice, pan-seared wild halibut, spiked organic turkey burger, sweet potato fries, chocolate-hemp gelato, Dougie B's carrot cake. Wine list: Limited to mostly organic and/or bio-dynamic wines from producers from both Old and New worlds. Corkage fee, $25. Best table: For quiet, one in the bakery room; for fun, one along the windows in the dining room. Details: Open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and for dinner 5:30 to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Bakery is open from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Full bar is open Monday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 12:30 p.m. Two hours free parking in city structure on Watseka. Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.

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