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RESTAURANTS : VENICE’S SOBROSO: A MATTER OF TASTE

What you think of Sobroso, a new storefront Mexican restaurant in Venice, a few doors down from Rockenwagner, seems to depend on where you’re coming from. Jerry comes from cushy Westwood, wants service in a restaurant, some degree of comfort, a good martini when he can get it. He thinks Sobroso looks like a set designed by Samuel Beckett on a cheerful day--a barren room set with tables and chairs, walls the color of yellow oilcloth. Self-conscious trendiness, he calls it, sounding bored.

Marilyn comes from a loft nearby in Venice. She wears clothes from Parachute, her hair in a stylish Louise Brooks bob. She doesn’t mind that the place is spare and drafty (so’s her loft); she’s relaxed about the slow service; she’s happy with a beer or a bottle of wine; she loves the sculpture on the wall (Sobroso’s one decoration), a mock-sinister spotted yellow wood snake.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 3, 1986 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 3, 1986 Home Edition Calendar Part 5 Page 7 Column 3 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
The name of the restaurant reviewed in Friday’s Calendar was misspelled. The correct spelling is Sabroso, on West Washington Boulevard in Venice.

Jerry doesn’t like the wobbly tables, the harsh lighting, the scrape of chair against cement floor. He says that both his posole and baked rabbit are too chewy, that the rabbit’s red chili sauce doesn’t seem to belong with the rabbit. He finds the chili relleno, baked instead of deep fried, bland.

Marilyn feels at home with the clientele--an artsy, upscale Venice crowd. She finds the food inventive. She’s 5 feet 2 inches and weighs about 90 pounds soaking wet and likes tastes of food, not volume. For her, the a la carte dishes are the perfect size. Jerry thinks they look forlorn.

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Me, I’m somewhere in the middle, but after several visits, I’ve come around to Marilyn’s point of view. This is food unlike any I’ve had, and, finally, the dishes that are great outweigh the clunkers.

The cactus salad, for instance, is a revelation. It’s concocted of diced nopale, tomatoes and slivers of ricotta salata cheese and rosemary, all bound together in a light sherry vinegar and walnut oil dressing. This dish is Mexico meets California 1986--clean-tasting, healthy, exotic. The generous amount of crisp watercress served with it is a perfect complement.

The place is a mom-and-pop operation, Mom and Pop in this case a handsome, youngish couple (he’s in the kitchen; she waits the restaurant solo, thus the slow service). They both look like they’d be equally at home behind an easel or at a potter’s wheel as they are running a restaurant. In some of the food their artistry pays off, as in the chicken mole verde, a juicy breast covered in a wonderful chartreuse sauce of ground pumpkin seeds, poblano chili, tomatillo and garlic, this served with beans and rice perked up with roasted pine nuts--an enormous plate of food for the non-Marilyn-sized eaters among us.

Their sausages also show great know-how. Instead of greasy chorizo, these are made of ground duck and chicken spiced with cumin and cilantro, served with jalepeno mustard. The sausages (two are served with diced steamed potatoes, which I can take or leave) combine with the hand-made tortillas and salsa cruda that accompany every meal to make a fine dinner, especially with one of their wonderful desserts, but more about them later.

First, there’s the mole poblano , a tender breast with authentically chocolatey, hot, nutty sauce. I can’t vouch first-hand for the mussels served with jalepeno mayonnaise (mussels being the one thing on earth I don’t like), but I hear on good authority it’s one of the restaurant’s best dishes. Duck, the night I tried it, was underdone, fatty, but its tamarind sauce was delicious. I’d order it again, but I’d ask them for a crisper version.

For Marilyn-sized eaters, there are the miniature taste treats provided by the antojitos, three tasty morsels--one, a tiny chalupa (blue corn canoe filled with crab); a sope (masa stuffed with a piperade of red and yellow peppers and creme fraiche); and, best of all, a tiny quesadilla with a spicy red lentil paste and cheddar cheese, topped with guacamole and ground thyme. Shrimp is another light dish--three plump, perfectly-cooked fellows accompanied by a tasty, intense chipotle sauce and sprig of watercress. The scallops in tomatillo sauce left me cold. In fact, they were cold, and nearly raw, and the sauce didn’t tempt me to give the dish another try.

For dessert, there’s good brewed decaf (she serves only decaf--very California, very un-Mexican) and a choice of chocolate flan with cinnamon cream sauce; a flourless chocolate pecan cake with the same cream sauce; and a bunuelo topped with mango ice cream (even Jerry would have liked that mango ice cream) and Grand Marnier.

Sobroso, 1029 W . Washington Blvd., Venice. (213) 399-3832. Open for lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Sunday. No credit cards. No tipping. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, food only, $27-$45.

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