I first visited Drew’s an American Cafe in Encino seven months ago, when it was a new restaurant. Two of us sat on the pretty raised patio above Ventura Boulevard, thought the service was cheerful but spotty and pronounced the food “almost good.” I had a duck gumbo that had a slightly weird medicinal taste, and my friend had a veal in cream sauce that she said was just OK.
The food was edible enough to make me think that it might be good at other times. So I went back for dinner.
At first, the two of us were the only customers in the glowing pink dining room. We discussed our dinner selections with the waiter, a friendly, enthusiastic young man whose favorite word was “excellent.” I remember that dinner chiefly because I learned something from another woman diner who cut her stuffed Cajun fish and pushed it about her plate so that it looked as if she’d eaten more than a few bites.
I had overdone duck that was stuffed with an unrecognizable substance. Still, no amount of cutting and shoving obscured the fact that we didn’t care much for the food. I decided to leave things alone and not review the restaurant then.
Drew’s would have to improve, I thought, or it would probably fade away. It was such a friendly, cheerful place, and I liked the waiter so much, I genuinely hoped that it would get better. I drove by at lunchtime one day recently, noted a fair number of people out on the patio and decided to give Drew’s another try.
I had forgotten what a pleasant space Drew’s occupies. The flowered tablecloths, silk flowers and ferns, the pink walls, candlelight and perky plastic molded chairs all bear the stamp of a happy, casual, non-trendy, utterly unpretentious sensibility.
I had forgotten, too, how good the hot, moist whole-wheat squaw bread is. Munching on a hunk of it, I looked around the room and thought that this self-described “American Cafe” looks and feels like a good place to order pan-fried chicken, meat loaf, crab cakes, corn on the cob, apple pie. But Drew, the man in the kitchen, has other ideas.
The Caesar salad had a thick, but acceptable, dressing and good croutons made from that great bread, while the dinner salad had a huge amount of thick, sour cream-based “chunky blue cheese” dressing. And in both salads, for unfathomable reasons, the lettuce had been shredded, as if it were stuffing for a taco stand. This shredding, coupled with heavy dressing, results in a salad-as-pudding effect. Most peculiar. I ate more bread.
A little later, when the waiter--yes, the same friendly, cheerful, enthusiastic young man with the same favorite word--came up and asked me how my filet mignon was, I had a revelation. I understood why there are restaurant reviewers in this world. There are restaurant reviewers because nobody, nobody , nobody except the cruelest soul would want to look this delightful, excellent young man in the eye and tell him the truth about this filet mignon.
I admit here, I lied. “It’s fine,” I muttered.
A hefty piece of meat was swamped in a thin tomato sauce full of slightly cooked and raw mushrooms and slices of unpeeled, slightly cooked tomatoes. The sauce had a watery, boiled-tomato, burnt flavor. The slightly cooked mushrooms had that same odd medicinal taste I remembered from seven months ago. So did the wild rice that came with it.
It is a flavor I cannot place. But sauces and rice aside, the meat itself was gamy and tough--rare qualities to find in a filet. The whole plate of food was like something my Uncle Jack would invent if, after 70-odd years of steak and baked potatoes, he decided to be a gourmet cook.
A meat loaf in puff pastry, despite its inexplicable dollops of sour cream, seemed far more prosaic--and edible. The grilled chicken salad, however, was another mound of lettuce linguine topped with a chicken breast that had been charred to a punishing bitterness on a charcoal grill.
Desserts were so haywire, they cheered me up. A “chocolate truffle,” which the waiter said was “something and chocolate cake crumbs"--and excellent--looked and tasted like a blob of brownie batter on a cloud of whipped cream.
A macadamia nut cookie was broken up and suspended, along with a banana, in whipped cream. This conglomeration was set in a pool of caramel and raspberry sauces and drizzled with them. When the waiter asked me how I liked it, I was beyond dissembling. “It’s really, really weird,” I said.
“Yeah!” He was totally unperturbed. “There are a lot of different flavors in it, aren’t there?”
I wished then that he’d been a little more perturbed, that there was a chink in his oblivious cheerfulness, that there was a chink in the whole restaurant’s oblivious enthusiasm, and that somehow somebody would actually taste the food.
On the other hand, the impenetrable mask of optimism serves a purpose. Drew’s is impossible to hate: The owners and staff are not serving awful food on purpose at rip-off prices; they’re really nice, hard-working people trying to make an honest living. And serving awful food that they quite innocently think is excellent.
In such an atmosphere, it seems cruel, if not criminal, to disabuse such friendly folk. Contrary to most of the rules of small business, this restaurant seems to run on its good intentions alone. And contrary to my prediction that Drew’s would either improve or fade away, judging by the waiter’s statement that business has been improving slowly but steadily, Drew’s is gradually attracting a like-minded, sympathetic clientele.
Recommended dish: meat loaf, $14.
Drew’s an American Cafe, 16260 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 501- 8051. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. All major credit cards accepted. Free parking in back. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, food only, $20 to $50.