RESTAURANT REVIEW : Dinner at Tumbleweed Can Be a Moo-ving Experience

There's a photo of cows on the wall. Why cows? Oh--OK, now I get it. Tumbleweed is a Texas restaurant (Texas cattle) and it's also (this is more subtle) a grazing restaurant.

Yes, this is more or less Texas food for gourmet grazers. No appetizers and main courses here, just big plates, little plates and medium plates, so the modern diner can browse and munch in a sort of unstructured, unfenced fashion.

It's great fun. The decor may be Americana of the bleak sort--grainy photo blow-ups in heavy wooden and metal frames screwed right into the flat yellow walls--and you may be able to order homey dishes like coleslaw and corn sticks, but Elka Gilmore's latest restaurant isn't simply a return to the Tex-Mex food of her childhood. It's sophisticated stuff. Water or beer you drink from canning jars for a quaintly rustic touch, but there's a shrewdly selected wine list as well, and if you order wine they bring out actual wine glasses.

The menu changes daily, but the basic pattern is a selection of barbecued meats and grilled fish (the big plates), soft tacos and salads (the medium plates) and a lot of tiny items that might be appetizers or side dishes or snacks. The small snacky things may be samples from the barbecue of the day, or they may be dashing inspirations like a tiny oyster in crunchy cornmeal breading topped with a dollop of ancho mayonnaise, perched on a bed of fresh salsa cruda in an oyster shell.

The barbecued meats of the day, always good and smoky, generally include beef brisket, chicken and sausage, though you might find quail, lamb, duck or rabbit as well.

Baby lamb back ribs make particularly good barbecue, but it must be said that Gilmore's basic barbecue sauce is rather tame--perhaps it's a barbecue sauce meant to go with her shrewdly selected wines. If you order the combo plate, you get samples of all the barbecue items and also the fish selections of the day; a grazer's bargain. The fish dishes often seem self-consciously rough and ready, like striped bass rubbed with red peppers and garlic in a lemony sauce flavored with browned green onions. The middle-sized plates are likely to be things like a chicken salad, which is more or less the tart coleslaw mixed with smoked chicken. I've had a nice ceviche tostada with creamy scallops and a great soft taco filled with crisply breaded chunks of striped bass.

The best part of the meal is the side dishes you can get with your entrees--or by themselves, I'm sure. There are cornsticks, that crunchiest form of corn bread, and an excellent corn pudding, pudding-y on the bottom and browned on top. Thick slices of smooth-textured yellow Finnish potatoes are roughly browned and topped with good fresh salsa cruda. Sometimes there is bean cake, more or less gigantic black bean falafel. Pickled vegetables are very tart and may turn out to be a totally red color scheme of beets, red onions and a red jalapeno.

Among the desserts, the clear winner is a very satisfying apple spice cake of a dry, chewy texture with chunks of apple in it. But there's often a good brownie-like flourless chocolate cake, and I've had a rather firm baked apple with walnuts and a lightly floured pineapple fritter that were pretty striking. Now if I can just figure out why the cows in that photo on the wall are tinted dark purple.

Tumbleweed, 130 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, (213) 274-5844. Open for lunch Monday-Saturday, dinner daily. Beer and wine only. Street parking; valet parking evenings. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two (food only), $23-$62.

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