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COLUMBIA BAR & GRILL: A GEM OF A NOTION?

Columbia Bar & Grill, 1448 N. Gower St., Hollywood, (213) 461-8800. Open Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m. to midnight; Saturday 5 p.m. to midnight. Full bar. Valet parking. MC, Visa, American Express accepted. Dinner for two ( food only), $29-$66.

The Reluctant Gourmet has friends who give him the eye and tell him that he is obviously not reluctant enough. The truth is that he loves to eat--at Dodger Stadium, at hamburger stands, at pizza palaces. When pushed, he will even admit to a weakness for Musso & Frank’s. He likes to sit at the counter and consume steaks and salads, and he thinks the grillman has a great way with fish. But most of all he likes the fact that he can take a seat, eat his meal and then get up and go.

The RG thinks most restaurants are a bore. When asked to go eat in some swell new place, he generally turns up his nose and turns on the TV. I was therefore surprised to discover that he had taken a sudden interest in a brand-new restaurant. As the Columbia Bar & Grill was being built at the corner of Gower and Sunset, the RG began coming home at night and giving me progress reports. He would drop little tidbits about the restaurant, telling me that the major investor was actor Wayne Rogers, and that all the other investors were in the industry. Then one day he reported that there were people pulling up in front and valets parking cars. He dropped the final fact--that he would not be averse to eating a meal there.

This was such a novelty that I immediately made plans: On the second day the restaurant was open, we walked through the door. “It looks sort of like a health club,” said the RG with an air of enormous disappointment, “and the waiters all look like displaced exercise instructors.” He had a point: The front room, the one with the skylight, is vast and cold and dark, and that evening the waiters wandered vaguely about as if they weren’t quite sure what they were doing there. (Some days you are inclined to wonder the same thing. One day a waiter earnestly offered us a special called “jumbo.” “You know,” he said, “that soup from Louisiana.”)

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The RG may have been taken aback by the sheer chic of the restaurant, but he was delighted with the menu. “We’re serving the food we grew up with,” says Tom Rubenstein, the restaurant’s manager, “our favorite kinds of food. The menu features high-quality dishes that were around 30 years ago and will be around 30 years from now.” This is, in other words, food designed to please the very people who have been chowing down at Musso’s for years. The RG immediately settled on a shrimp cocktail, a salad and a veal chop with homemade mustard. “Simple dishes,” he said with satisfaction. I, on the other hand, was able to order a thoroughly modern meal: a cheese- and shrimp-stuffed pepper in avocado salsa followed by grilled free-range chicken.

The RG was completely happy with his shrimp. (“What could they possibly do to ruin something as simple as shrimp cocktail?” he asked. “They could overcook the shrimp,” I replied. They hadn’t.) My pepper was also quite wonderful: It had been stuffed with shrimps and then Jack cheese, which turned sweet and creamy on the grill, and then placed on a pool of rather fiery salsa. “Try this,” I urged the RG, but he was busy being outraged by the size of his salad. “The dressing is fine,” he cried, “but why can’t they give you some more lettuce? How much could a few measly leaves cost them?” He was also slightly annoyed when the veal chop arrived without the touted homemade mustard. “We ran out,” the waiter explained, belatedly offering something in a jar. Still, the RG admitted that the meat was good and perfectly cooked. I even got him to admit that the chicken was juicy and entirely flavorful.

We ended the meal with a decent apple pie with a cakelike crust, and a peach cobbler that would have been better if it hadn’t been burnt. “Well?” I asked the RG. “It’s not Musso’s,” he said darkly, “but I wouldn’t object to eating here again.” This, from him, is a high compliment.

Actually, the real meal to eat at Columbia is lunch, when the joint is jumping with preening people from the industry looking around to see if Anybody has come in. (There is almost always Somebody here.) The place looks different in the daytime, too, with so much sunlight pouring into the room that you actually have to wear sunglasses unless you are seated in one of the back rooms. (And that is probably where you do want to be seated: The booths are cozy, and the place seems much friendlier back there.)

The lunch menu is not dramatically different from the dinner menu, except for the addition of a few extra salads and sandwiches and a respectable hamburger. At noon, my favorite dish, the crab cakes, graduate to entree status (they are mere appetizers in the evening). The cakes are crispy, crabby and really delicious. I am also very fond of the chili, a big bowl of meat strips in a sauce of strong character. The chili has some depth, a bit of heat and absolutely no beans. (The Chinese chicken salad, on the other hand, has too few vegetables to qualify as a salad, and the French fries really need some work.)

But the RG is not much moved by lunch, so we went back for dinner. In retrospect, it occurs to me that I should have left well enough alone. He started with a Caesar salad in an aggressively creamy dressing. He was not thrilled. But it was better than my calamari , which were fried to such a crisp that they could have been fried anything--string, shoelaces, rubber bands. Then he had grilled tuna in a ginger-lime sauce; the fish was thin and overcooked. Meanwhile, I was facing a soggy plate of pasta. “If these sausages were cooked as much as the linguine,” I said, playing with an ocean of sauce containing some limp linguine and two squishy homemade sausages, “the dish might not be bad.” I took two bites and then ordered a hot-fudge sundae.

The fudge is fine--it’s the kind that hardens when it hits the ice cream. But it’s not everybody’s idea of a balanced dinner. And while much of what they serve at Columbia Bar & Grill is really good, the restaurant is so uneven that you might just end up eating dessert for dinner. Order right, and you leave thinking that this is a great addition to the Hollywood restaurant scene. Order wrong, and you wonder what you’re doing here at all.

Of course, some people say much the same thing about that other restaurant in Hollywood. The RG remains unmoved. “When this place has been around for 70 years, I’ll come back,” he says. And then he heads off to his favorite counter.

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