I have seen La Ve Lee dozens of times in passing--very much in passing. Dead center on one of Ventura Boulevard’s more harrowing curves, it’s easy to spot and even easier to instantaneously forget. I would always read “Mediterranean specialties” on the sign and then immediately refocus on steering past some huge Oldsmobile that was drifting into my lane.
Recently, however, I hit a red light at the nearby intersection and saw what would finally lure me into this long-lived Studio City standby: a banner proclaiming Brazilian jazz.
Inside, La Ve Lee has the look and feel of a restaurant that has been well-broken in. The dining room is dim and cozy and Continental; there’s nothing hard-edged or trendy, just dozens of small tables that may, if necessary, be pushed together to accommodate larger parties. A prominent bar provides a hearth-like focus to the room.
On a Wednesday night, when the band’s just starting, I look over our fellow diners and consult with my friend. “What kind of people do you think are here?”
“Couples,” she says without hesitation. “Couples on dates.” She raises her voice to be heard over the guitar solo. “And it’s a good place for them, too. When they run out of things to talk about, music fills the void.”
Indeed, after the first subdued instrumentals, a woman singer grabs the mike. The amplification increases, and it’s easier to let the complicated rhythms and electric piano eclipse conversation. Nevertheless, the jazz is cool and restrained. “It’s like sophisticated Latin Muzak,” my friend says.
Mediterranean food may be one of the hottest new sidebars to California Cuisine, but as cooked by La Ve Lee’s chef-owner Eddie, it’s more old-fashioned Continental dinner-house food with a Middle Eastern accent.
Dinner salads come with a tangy lemon- tahini dressing, and a cup of split pea soup before dinner is spicy, almost curried. You can get a steak here, and scampi, and almost all the entrees come with our eternal old pals, steamed broccoli and carrots.
The very best things at La Ve Lee come on the appetizer combo plate: hummus sprinkled with roasted slivered almonds; tabbouleh, a refreshing eggplant relish; a smoky “eggplant tahini” or baba ghannouj ; good calamata olives, and hot pink pickled turnips. An accompanying basket of hot pita bread is frequently replenished. For an evening of dipping and munching, there’s no reason to order anything else.
I also like the shawarma , a rich, sour marinated beef served in a pliable flat bread. One can doctor it up with tahini and hot sauce to taste. The moussaka, however, is a dense, chewy, overcooked weirdness. The menu describes it as layers of lamb, eggplant and cheese baked in what is called a special “whipt-cream sauce,” but there is nothing creamy about the sight or flavor on this tough square tile of food.
Kibbeh , a dish of cracked wheat and ground lamb, comes in two incarnations at La Ve Lee: a deep-fried and a raw version (kibbeh niyyah). I adventurously order the latter and am not particularly impressed: It’s like a semi-hardened patty of steak tartare and Wheatena. The bastilla , a pretty round bun of stuffed filo dough, is filled with ground meat (allegedly chicken), egg, parsley and onion, and topped with powdered sugar and cinnamon. It’s flaky, spicy and compelling, but just too dry to wholeheartedly endorse.
Although I have invariably ordered a lot of food, when the bill comes at La Ve Lee, I always think the food is a little expensive. And the music, it seems, is pretty tame: Essentially, it’s live easy-listening. Although the San Fernando Valley is lucky to have at least one Mediterranean dinner house serving up Brazilian jazz, I’m afraid that Carmen Miranda might have preferred to snack off her hat and rumba on by.
La Ve Lee, 12514 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 980-8158. Open Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. Full bar. Visa, MasterCard and American Express accepted. Recommended dishes: grape leaves ($6.95); combo plate (half $9.95, full $14.95); tabbouleh salad (half $3.95, full $6.95); shawarma (13.95); bastilla ($14.95).