FIRST IMPRESSIONS: It takes nerve to open...

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: It takes nerve to open a 38-seat storefront restaurant in a chancy part of town and then name it Rockenwagner (1023 W. Washington Blvd., Venice, (213) 399-6504, but once you've tasted the food, you will understand why the owner/chef was eager to put his name on the door.

What comes out of the open kitchen in this cool green room with marble tables is not the now-cliched California cooking, but a light, sophisticated French cuisine. Starters include a gorgeously presented crab souffle with mangoes and lobster butter sauce, asparagus in puff pastry with grilled sea scallops and sweet-sour port wine sauce, and a warm lotte salad with walnut oil and bacon. Entrees are equally interesting; grilled Norwegian salmon with pink lentils, stuffed quail with cabbage and grapes, a beautiful tian of lamb. Garnishes are varied and surprising, like the crunch of butter-sauteed water chestnuts taking the place of potatoes. For dessert, the walnut-plum tart with a side of pureed apricots should not be missed.

There are negatives: Service can be slow and the wine list is so small it's almost nonexistent. But the place has been open only three weeks, and it is already clear that there is a sure hand at work in this moderately priced restaurant, (about $20-$25 a person for food). I think we'll be hearing more about Hans Rockenwagner.

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