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RESTAURANTS : DOWN-HOME DINING IN THE MARINA

Joan Didion once took a UC Extension course in “shopping-center theory” and, dreaming, imagined her own mall complete with monkeys, Chinese restaurants and bands of small girls playing tambourine. It is only slightly less surreal to eat at Aunt Kizzy’s Back Porch in the middle of the Villa Marina shopping center in Marina del Rey. Park your car, gaze at the familiar faces of Sav-On, Swensen’s and Vons and get ready to leave the prefab world behind.

Aunt Kizzy’s is a simple, store-front restaurant with red bandanna print vinyl tablecloths, scruffy wood paneling and a tremendous amount of heart. Aunt Kizzy’s may feature Southern cooking, with such a la mode dishes as gumbo, jambalaya and hush puppies, but it is hardly your average yuppie hangout. This is a down-home venue: daddy’s at the door, mama looks after the customers and little daughter does her stint at the cash register.

Owners Adolf and Mary Dulan collected recipes from family and friends; analyzing their results is rather like doing an after-dinner appraisal at a favorite cousin’s house. The food, which is good, is only part of the show. The atmosphere, and I am not referring to the decor, is special. These days it is rare to find a friendly, ethnically mixed restaurant; this one felt lively and good. As good as the crusty corn muffins that were served as soon as we sat down.

We gobbled down the muffins and waited for someone to take our order. And waited. Service, while very cordial, is excruciatingly slow. They really need extra help. Be prepared to feel serious hunger pangs, forget about popping in for a bite before catching the 8:10 movie show. The kitchen services a take-out crowd as well as the in-house patrons so you’ll even have time to step out to Vons to fetch some wine or beer. (No liquor license, but you are welcome to bring your own bottle.)

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A big mess of jambalaya finally arrived. The dish, the Southern equivalent of a pilaf or paella, comes with tender slices of chicken, rough-textured sausage and a hill of peppery, broth-laden rice. Bar-B-Que Beef Ribs (Sunday nights only, though “Uncle Wade’s Baked Beef Short Ribs” are available every day) were pungent and sweet and served--as are all the entrees--with a choice of two vegetables and a generous mound of carefully prepared gravy and rice.

Collard greens were sweet (the chef uses sugar in a lot of the dishes), the pot likker (broth) tangy and vitamin-rich. Steamed cabbage was a pleasant accompaniment to the hearty meal but candied yams were really something else. Full of nutmeg and honey, they tasted to me like the pies of Christmas past.

The fried chicken was earthy, not a bit greasy, the crust really crunchy and brown. Red beans and black-eyed peas don’t happen to speak to me, but hush puppies, globes of corn meal deeply fried, is addicting, and fattening, fare. “I just don’t eat stuff like this anymore,” I said to my friend. “It’s from the ‘50s,” he responded. “Remember the world ‘before cuisine.’ ” We dipped back into time and shared two thick slabs of meat loaf filled with hand-cut onions and topped with a rich brown gravy that could make Pritikin-followers scream.

Is it possible that after this we still had room for dessert? Yes, especially when we saw that they really were homemade, sitting right out on the counter swaddled in aluminum foil. “Sock-it-to-me” cake, a yellow cake made in a Bundt mold, was filled with walnuts and cinnamon and served fresh, soft and warm. The pineapple-coconut layer cake was a light, multi-textured affair. Peach cobbler turned out to be a tease: the Bisquick crust was bland and the canned peaches a salute to a past I’ll never miss.

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The mythical Aunt Kizzy (“She’s whoever you want her to be,” I was told) doesn’t let you go away hungry and lives up to the home-cooking claim at a very reasonable price. Lunches are served during the week for the full-meal price of $4.95 while Sunday brunch offers more food than a Southern belle would consume in a day at $7.95. There is one thing this shopping-center restaurant lacks: easy chairs and hammocks to snooze in after you’ve finished the meal.

Aunt Kizzy’s Back Porch, 4371 Glencoe Avenue B-2, Marina del Rey. Villa Marina Shopping Center, two doors south of Vons Market. Telephone: (213) 823-8703. Open seven days for lunch (brunch on weekends) and dinner. No liquor. Parking in shopping center lot. No credit cards. Dinner for two: $16-$26.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: “I’m so scared,” Antoine Gaunche kept telling his customers as he slid across the marble floors, “after all, I’m new to Beverly Hills.” Looking around at the twinkling crystal chandeliers, you can’t help thinking he has reason to be nervous. Antoine’s (50 N. La Cienega Blvd., (213) 657-1853) is a page from the past, the sort of restaurant that would be happiest if the ladies wore long dresses, a place that insists that gentlemen wear jackets. The menu puts Le or La before the name of every dish, but whether this town is still eager to eat Le Diner remains to be seen.

You’ve seen this menu before, but not in a while. Lots of flames: filet of beef with peppercorns is flamed at your table, filet of lamb is served flaming on a sword, and among the desserts is, you guessed it, crepes flambees. Not everything is old, however; a warm salad of salmon and spinach was superb, and there are a number of unusual pasta preparations. There’s a nice cheese cart, a fine wine list, and the service is so good that when they ask if everything is all right, you actually believe that they mean it.


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