AN UPDATE ON THOSE NEIGHBORHOOD PLACES
Los Angeles has three new restaurants that couldn’t care less what I think of them. Unless you happen to live in the neighborhood, your opinion doesn’t concern them either. They don’t aim to please anybody who has to come across town to sit at their tables, for these restaurants are simply trying to provide good food at reasonable prices for people who live nearby.
But this is not the neighborhood restaurant you remember, that sweet but shabby place where Mom manned the stove and Pop handed out the menus. This is a brand-new Los Angeles invention, an updated version of an old-fashioned institution.
This new place is nobody’s frump; it is invariably dressed to kill, (usually in pale pastels). Coziness is not a consideration: patrons are more likely to shout than whisper. And the cooking here is hardly homey; the new neighborhood menu offers everything from carpaccio to Cajun popcorn. But although the new neighborhood restaurant may try to look like Spago, sound like Chianti Cucina and taste like Trumps, it is always easy on the pocketbook.
Cafe Cordiale, American Sampler and Partners and Company have a lot in common. Their menus tend to be similar. So, in fact, do their prices. They even look a little bit alike. But despite all this, what is different about these restaurants is more important than what is the same. For like any old neighborhood restaurant, the most striking feature of the new one is the degree to which it reflects its location.
Cafe Cordiale, 14015 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 789-1985. Open for lunch, Monday-Friday, for dinner Monday-Saturday. MC, Visa, American Express. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$40.
“I’m not trying to buy a car or anything,” says the valet at Cafe Cordiale, opening the door and tugging on his bow tie simultaneously. “I’m just trying to make enough money to get a surfboard.”
All the people who work here look like they’d rather be surfing. But they don’t take it out on you; the waitresses at Cafe Cordiale are remarkably pleasant. “Tonight’s special salad,” says the earnest young woman who first waits on me, “is radicchio with spinach and apples and chicken and Caerphilly, (that’s like cheddar.)” She actually remembers all of this, doesn’t even look at a piece of paper. Then she takes a deep breath, smiles brightly and adds, “It’s delicious. I’ve tasted it. The flavors all blend really, really nicely.”
She’s tasted the chicken curry, too, and she thinks it’s swell. (Personally, I’m less impressed, although I like the price--$6.50-- a lot). And I certainly don’t like the vegetables that are perched on the side of the plate; they taste as if somebody forgot to cook them. (Current fashion to the contrary, crispness does have its limitations.)
There is a lot to like about Cafe Cordiale, besides the service. The place is certainly pretty, all soft pastels, pink and blue neon, tasteful prints on the walls. There are decent wines by the glass, and the prices are extremely reasonable. The menu looks appealing. Unfortunately, it looks a lot better than it tastes.
The best of the appetizers is the shrimp cocktail, which does not say much for the chef. The fried dumplings, which actually require some skill, are fairly awful: won ton skins are stuffed with poorly seasoned meat and deep-fried. Pizzas aren’t very impressive either, despite trendy toppings like chicken and sun-dried tomatoes.
Salads, on the other hand, tend to be decent, and I have no real quarrel with the pasta, although I wish they’d cook the seafood that tops it a little bit less. And most of the fish (broiled swordfish, sauteed salmon, sole) and meats (veal piccata, marinated lamb), would have been better if they had not spent so much time playing with fire.
But desserts will leave you with a good taste in your mouth. There’s a chocolate mousse concoction, embellished with whipped cream and raspberries and ladyfingers, that is irresistible. There are all sorts of pies and puddings and ice creams and cheesecakes, which the waitresses love to describe in mouthwatering detail. “Ooh,” said one waitress as she put down the plates, “aren’t our desserts wonderful?”
American Sampler, 5722 Melrose Ave., Hollywood, (213) 461-5775. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, for dinner Monday-Saturday. American Express. No beer or wine yet. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$50.
Even if the desserts at American Sampler were wonderful, (which they aren’t), it is hard to imagine that anybody who worked here would be so uncool as to say so.
This is the first trendy restaurant in the neighborhood, the not yet gentrified eastern edge of Hollywood. The decor is self-consciously arty, (blowups of Andy Warhol photographs look down on the diners), and you have the sense that the people who run this modern outpost feel like pioneers in uncharted territory, scouts who have forged bravely ahead to spread the Gospel of Food.
The menu in this elegant cave is filled with words like blackened , mesquite , blue corn and Cajun . The nachos are made with blue cornmeal tortillas, and topped with mesquite-grilled scallions. (They are delicious.) There are barbecued chicken wings, and oysters on the half shell, and the beginning-to-be-ubiquitous Cajun popcorn.
The food is not memorable, but it is surprisingly good. The fried chicken has a wonderfully crispy crust and is accompanied by collard greens and a baked sweet potato. There is marinated, grilled swordfish and thinly sliced venison served with something called cranberry salsa (although it has not a bit of bite). There is blackened fish and grilled steak and even a steamed Maine lobster.
Entrees for these dishes run from $10 to $20, but the starving artists of the neighborhood have not been forgotten. Special dinners, which include both soup (or salad) and a cup of coffee, can be had for less than $10. The options include fat slices of purposely burnt meat loaf, (served with mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables), black bean chili, Brunswick stew (sans squirrel) and even pan fried hot dogs.
“Hot dogs,” said the woman at the next table, “how sophisticated!” Clearly if you can say sophisticated and hot dog in the same breath, you have come to the right neighborhood.
Partners and Company, 1836 Hyperion Blvd., Silver Lake, (213) 661-0711. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, for brunch on weekends, for dinner daily. All major credit cards. No beer or wine yet. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$40. “The people at Partners and Company are more likely to think of hot dogs as camp than sophisticated, for this is not a restaurant where food is treated as religion. Nobody will come to your table and recite the menu as if it were the 10 Commandments; they are more likely to play it for laughs.
The last time I ate there one of the owners came and stood at the table, waving a bit of newsprint. “Look,” he said, “we got a mention in the Los Angeles Times.” He struck a pose and then said, in a fair imitation of Scarlett O’Hara: “My dear, we have virtually redefined the tuna sandwich.” I’ll admit I felt a little foolish, but there’s a nice lightness here that goes beyond the airiness of the attractive peach dining room. This is refreshing, especially given the care with which the food is cooked.
Dinners, which feature straightforward dishes like sliced turkey with a pudding of corn and wild rice, or spicy fried chicken, or grilled tuna, are in the $9-$13 range, and that includes a salad. This is good value for the money, but it is at lunchtime, when the sun comes pouring into the room, that the restaurant is at its most interesting.
You might start by splitting a bizarre dish they call “Japanese pizza.” This concoction, which is filled with salmon and bits of squid, resembles nothing I’ve ever eaten before (not even okonomiyaki , on which it is modeled). It is an oddly tasty dish, halfway between a crepe and an omelet.
Not all the dishes are so strange. There is a fat hamburger, and the sandwiches are a delight. (I’ll still stand behind that tuna.) Lobster roll, which is topped with lots of gently cooked lobster mixed with homemade mayonnaise, is equally good.
The side dishes are inventive. Best among them is something they call “pickled tomatoes” (they are actually curried). To my mind these would taste even better if they were served on a separate plate; the sauce has an annoying tendency to soak into your sandwich.
The desserts are fun to eat. I recommend the dumpy little chocolate roll they call a yodel. The chef has taken the form of what may have been the worst dessert ever made in America and given it substance. It certainly leaves you with a laugh.