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CAFE KATSU: IS IT FOOD, OR IS IT ART?

Cafe Katsu is a chic little restaurant in a new pod mall on Sawtelle Boulevard. While the other shops house the more prosaic dry cleaners, jewelry shops and pizza joints peculiar to these instant shopping centers, Cafe Katsu (an offshoot of the stunning, minimalist Katsu, a sushi bar on Hillhurst Avenue) is in a different class and, like its mother restaurant, as spare as a La Cienega gallery. The walls are white; the floor, cement; the table tops, granite; the chairs, Breuer. It is a decor that sharpens the senses, at the same time serving notice: You are in for an Artistic Experience.

The cuisine is French nouvelle as interpreted by a Japanese chef. Halved figs appear on a background of prosciutto, the deep red of the meat of the fig matching exactly the shade of the Italian ham. Halibut sashimi is fanned out prettily, delicate, translucent--and what’s that sprinkled on the fish? Corn flakes?

The difference is, of course, that at an art gallery you don’t eat the paintings. You say, “Interesting juxtaposition of colors, innovative statement, but I think it’s weird"--and you move on to the next work of art.

Here, you might be confronted with a large white plate artfully arranged with fish and lovely curls of sliced, sauteed Japanese eggplant, but you might find that the yellowtail clashes with the acidic tomato/caper sauce. And you might wish that the artiste-san in the kitchen had done his experimenting on someone else.

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More often than not, however, the food tastes as good as it looks. Something as simple as a green salad with champagne vinaigrette dressing is a revelation of baby lamb’s lettuce, frisee, endive and such, all of it so fresh and delicate you’re sure it was plucked seconds ago from a nearby nursery on Sawtelle. (At $3.50, this salad, big enough for two, is one of the best buys in town.)

The sauteed foie gras is also a treat. At first glance, $6.75 seems too high a price for the ridiculously small sliver, but any more of this sinfully rich essence-of-liver substance would send your cholesterol level over the top. By the time you’ve gobbled it up, you’re more than satisfied, and you have the cleansing, extra treat of the radicchio and fresh greens with which it is served.

The paper-thin slices of halibut sashimi make another delicious dish. The halibut proves to be so fresh it almost melts on your tongue; the lime dressing, sublime. And those corn flakes provide a nice complementary crunch.

The appetizers are a hard act to follow, and that may be why the entrees seem disappointing. Not that the roast rack of lamb in its white wine/mustard sauce isn’t perfectly tender, and not that the chicken, in a creamy garlic sauce, isn’t perfectly respectable. It’s just that they’re not sensational. You wonder if the chef, lost in the concentration of arranging everything so artfully, has bothered to taste the sauce. If he had, he might have discovered that the chanterelles in both dishes had surprisingly little taste and needed, maybe, some butter to bring them out.

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Soon, however, you’re back in heaven with one of the best desserts in L.A.: baked pear and custard in the lightest of pastry shells, the custard caramelized by a woman behind the counter carefully wielding a blowtorch.

Don’t look for cappuccino or espresso here. The pizza joint next door cornered the mall’s concession on those items. No matter. The coffee here--both decaf and regular--is as good as the coffee you make at home, if you buy good beans and grind them yourself.

Also on the menu: Katsu noodles at lunchtime--a mountain of Thai pasta, full of bits of chicken, in a tasty mustard/sesame-oil dressing; grilled Norwegian salmon and rock cod; sauteed sea bream and sea scallops in lobster sauce; New York steak in a red wine sauce; assorted daily specials; and, for $6, a dessert assortment that lets you sample what’s in the display case out front. The cheesecake and the chocolate cake are standouts, but nothing is as good as that baked pear concoction.

The prices, at lunch, seem so reasonable that you don’t mind if occasionally the chef mucks up a canvas. Two appetizers, two entrees, two desserts, two coffees and a shared liter bottle of Kirin can be had for about $30. At dinner, however, the amount somehow doubles and you find yourself getting testy about the cost of eating in what is, after all, a pod mall--especially if what you’ve ordered is all form, no content.

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Cafe Katsu, 2117 Sawtelle Blvd., West Los Angeles. (213) 477-3359. Beer and wine. Parking in lot. Open Mondays-Saturdays for lunch; for desserts on the patio , and for dinner. Closed Sundays. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $40-$60. Lunch for two, $20-$25.


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