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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Eclectic Works Half the Time at Broadway Bar and Grill

The Santa Monica Mall looks like nothing these days. On the other hand, Broadway Bar and Grill looks a little like everything.

It has a huge wooden back bar full of every sort of Victorian excess--marble, mirrors, Ionic capitals, lions’ heads, name your poison--but it also has some ‘20s-era fixtures, notably an elegant statue of a nude dancer. The ‘80s are represented with bare brick walls, exposed ductwork and theatrical lighting.

Broadway Bar and Grill wants to be everything, too: California Cuisine spot, romantic-intimate dinner spot, al fresco dining spot, late-supper spot, brunch spot and all-around watering hole with take-away fish and chips bar.

Naturally, not everything works equally well. For instance, I do like that statue, which represents an unclad flapper worshiping the Flame of Art, I guess, but the thrill of being allowed to look at bricks and ductwork has worn off a little, at least for this cowpoke.

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Likewise, brunch seems pretty good: The staff pushes Ramos fizzes, which are pleasant, like sipping a vanilla-flavored cloud (no trace of the usual citrus flavor), though their special attraction seems to be that you cannot imagine how these dainty things contain alcohol. The specialty is corned beef hash actually made with snappy, flavorful corned beef instead of that pink stuff usually reserved for hash-making. They sell hollandaise to go with it, but even ketchup isn’t bad here.

But the fish and chips bar is more dubious. It generally offers a choice of at least two fish, including such fish-and-chips rarities as skate, so Icelandic cod is not always the only catch of the day. Points for that, and for the distinctive puffiness of the breading; however, that breading is also a little oily and tends to get soggy. Still, the tartar sauce (50 cents extra) is particularly good and fresh-tasting. I wonder whether you could just skip the fish and have an order of tartar sauce?

The chef, Michael Diem, has worked at some San Francisco hot spots: Balboa Cafe, Fog City Diner, Jeremiah Tower’s restaurant Stars. Understandably there are inventive California Cuisine touches here. One of the best appetizers is charred carpaccio . Apparently the tenderloin muscle is lightly charred on the outside and then frozen so it can be cut into microscopically thin slices. With its tarragon-mustard mayonnaise, it’s delicious, though the portion is incredibly small, about a tablespoon of beef for $5.95.

Other appetizers aren’t quite in the same league. Raclette with new potatoes and cornichons kind of calls out for a tortilla to go with the melted cheese. The best thing about the chicken salad with ginger-sesame oil dressing is the vegetable garnish: tiny fresh beets and fresh squash about the size of marbles. The Caesar salad is the usual sloppy modern model where the anchovies, instead of being mashed into the dressing, lie hidden, coiled like sinister worms.

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Entrees are on the whole better than appetizers. The burgers are literally among the very best around, made from absolutely wonderful fresh rare beef. The larger of them, though, comes in a toasted loaf of French bread, so crusty and even a little tough that it falls apart in your hands as you try to eat. There’s also a dish full of exciting spicy aromas called gite-gite , which is grilled skirt steak that has been dipped in a lot of cracked pepper, clove and cardamom.

The rib-eye steak with roasted garlic butter is nice and tender, and Rotton Rodney’s BLT, made with pancetta , an unsmoked Italian bacon, is enjoyable for the good sourdough bread it’s made with (it’s so good I wish they’d use real smoked bacon).

The menu is still settling down. One night I ordered the half chicken with red beans, but they brought another chicken dish instead. When pressed, they apologized that they were out of red beans because this was the first night the dish was offered. But the chicken they brought instead, with its cumin-turmeric lime sauce, was not all bad.

Desserts are a very mixed bag. The excellent berry tart has a layer of browned butter under the fruit, as at La Toque. There’s a wonderful thick hot chocolate sauce you can get on your so-called gelato --which is not gelato at all by my lights, not when it has the exact texture of American ice cream. But you might as easily get a rather plain chocolate cake or an apple pie in an incongruous Danish pastry crust.

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It just goes to show you. In Santa Monica, it’s mall or nothing, or maybe something in between.

Recommended dishes: Broadway burger, $7.25; gite-gite steak, $13.25; berry tart, $6.

Broadway Bar & Grill, 1460 Santa Monica Mall at Third and Broadway, Santa Monica; (213) 393-4211. Open for lunch and dinner daily. Full bar. Valet parking at dinner. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $30 to $64.


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