Nineteen eighty-eight. Los Angeles. Raymond Chandler’s centennial. Santa Ana nights. And a caperless Philip Marlowe, more Groucho Marx meets Nancy Drew. The locale? The West End Bistro, halfway between Marlowe’s Hollywood digs and Chandler’s Bay City Pier.
We had questions, lots of them. Does pizza with “garlic-thin crust” always taste like Armenian cracker bread? Why were fat, fresh hot sesame-seed finger rolls available only one night? Who put in the wrong soup? Who left out the condiments? Why call slices of kiwi drenched in plain whipped cream “kiwi mousse”? How can one place serve such delicious and nondescript food?
The take-out menu spills the beans: mix-and-match pastas, open-flame-roasted chicken, clams steamed in champagne, pizza of the more-is-more school. It’s contemporary turf and, for the most part, pretty fairly priced. “We’re not big eaters,” said a brunette ordering a quarter of a chicken (with the works) at $6.95. She sure wasn’t part of my crowd: 10 minutes after delivery, our chicken was archeology.
One half of an herb-and-garlic chicken, and one half a barbecue chicken turned out to be identical--except the barbecue version came with a side container of truly awful red sauce. A second time, when we asked if the chickens were actually different, a tough-cookie voice said “What do you think? The barbecued chicken is barbecued.” Some naked barbecue. We had two indistinguishable chickens again, complete with real mashed potatoes, sage gravy, and an oniony stuffing that said New England autumn. (If you’d like barbecue sauce slathered over your birds before you take them home, you have to order it that way.)
The rest is simple: the yes-buts, the yesses, and the big sleeps. Chinese chicken salad, with its well-balanced mandarin orange-sauce is a delight. (But who tucked slices of sweet nut bread under the lettuce? And why?) Clam chowder was buttery, delicious and sweet (but where was the minestrone we ordered?) Onion rings were sprinkled with thyme (but whose heavy hand doused half the pile with salt?) Another bruiser oversalted the champagne broth surrounding a tasty cluster of sweet clams.
Why isn’t the carpaccio pizza on the take-out menu? We ordered it from the regular menu and it’s fabulous --with whole garlic, capers, red onions, first rate meat--even though it tastes more like a swell cracker with roast beef.
Yes to the pastas. The sauces are clean and straight ahead, the pastas properly cooked. A good-for-your-heart tomato, basil and garlic sauce was bursting with herbs, and a linguine with meat sauce, with one luscious, grilled meatball in the center, was pure Little Italy. The “traditional pesto” with its barely cut leaves was primeval stuff.
The fresh and bland Cobb salad only needs a smarter dressing but the truly awful “grilled and chilled” seafood salad should be set before a firing squad. An appetizer of handsome grilled vegetables (bok choy and eggplant to fresh corn and jicama) was mucked up with an unannounced ketchup-based brew; it tasted like the sauce escaped from a bad Cantonese place to assault those innocent vegetables.
Save one very light white chocolate kirsch mousse cake and a tasty custard with cinnamon erroneously referred to as creme brulee , the desserts wear lead shoes. Though the odds stack up mixed here, the potential’s good: Only a couple of dishes really take that long walk off a short pier.
West End Bistro , 10700 W . Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 470-6086. Take-out available (call 20 minutes ahead) M o nday-Thursday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-midnight. Sunday 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Delivery available ($10 minimum, call 45 minutes ahead): Boundaries: Sunset Blvd., Venice Blvd., Bundy, La Cienega. 10% or $3 maximum delivery charge. All major credit cards. Parking in the Westside Pavilion.