Bongyory: Old World Delights for the New Age

Times Staff Writer

I have a feeling that Bongyory's owner, John Schweiger, and his wife, Agnes, haven't a clue that California cuisine has been through the wars of revolution. And I'm glad.

Schweiger's classic Continental cooking and style has an ingenuous, Old World quality about it that is refreshing in an era of Space Age culinary reformation.

It's fine hotel cooking with a creative edge because Schweiger, an old-school professional chef and tallow sculptor, likes experimenting with Chinese, Hawaiian and other international tastes--not quite the way Spago or Chinois would do it, mind you, but quite clean and to the point.

Rivals the Classics

You get things such as chicken stir-fry that would challenge many stir-fries in Chinatown, gumbo and catfish Cajun-style that might well rival Prudhomme's, houmous bi tahini that the former Middle Eastern club next door would love to have been able to serve. Then, side by side, are the classics: paella and bouillabaisse complet , coquilles St. Jacques, cioppino and calamari fritti, scampi and some of the freshest fish in town, which you can have grilled, sauteed or poached with any number of sauces concocted by Schweiger.

But that's not all.

The low prices will be a surprise. How about $3.50 for fried fillet of fish? Or $7.45 for catfish Cajun style? And $4.95 for chicken stir-fry?

We stumbled on Bongyory while covering a simple story on Schweiger's Eiffel tower sculpture in chocolate, expecting nothing much. I knew I had stepped into the "twilight zone" the minute I walked into the small, "Li'l Abner" type shack joined at the hip to the glittery Crazy Horse exotic dancing club next door.

There was the five-foot chocolate Eiffel Tower, listing slightly and beading with sweat in the deadliest heat of the year. There were the Schweigers fighting imminent destruction of their creation with a blasting fan. Then I noticed they were wearing matching uniforms--sailor hats, white trousers, blue-striped shirts and Dutch clogs. "We are a seafood restaurant, so we dress like it," Schweiger explained. You could have fooled me. I thought we were about to take to sea.

And the surprises kept coming: fancy gold-rimmed china, pretend gold utensils, placed French-style with the dessert spoon and fork above the plate.

And the cooking.

The place is new--five or so months old, with a patrons' list that began on a blank page. No PR, no friends sending friends over, no gimmicks, no introductions. Nothing. Most of his clients are people who have stumbled upon the place, as I did. Some have returned time and time again, making Bongyory their second home. It's that friendly at Bongyory.

Be prepared, while you wait--and you will wait--to table hop. Don't ask me why, it just happens, possibly because of the long (some think arduous) wait. My suggestion, if you are in a hurry, is to avoid the place altogether. You'll go stark raving mad waiting. Avoid it too if you are especially hungry. You'll go bananas gnawing on the tablecloth.

On the other hand, you'll have fun waiting if you are content with occasional nibbles until the main meal shows up an hour or so later. And don't worry, you won't be alone. Nor ignored. If Agnes Schweiger doesn't remind you to "p-u-l-e-s-e be patient," her husband, poking his head out of the pass-through, will. "It'll only be a couple of hours longer," he jokingly assures you. Ha, ha.

Elaborate Presentations

I'll tell you what I didn't order that I can't wait to try. The bouillabaisse complet comes the way it's served in the South of France, in big, deep bowls with the broth on the side. The paella, served from the pan in which it baked, looked divine. I can't wait to try it.

I've had just about everything else, including Schweiger's seafood medley, which comes to the table on a silver tray the way a butler might present it at a state banquet. Except that the one holding the tray is Schweiger himself, appearing exhausted and looking disheveled in his food-stained T-shirt after manning the kitchen solo, like a sea captain who has been abandoned by his crew. There is no one else in the kitchen except Schweiger and he doesn't let you forget it.

"It's too much," he says plunking himself down like a clump of clay after the show is over, as if you are interested in his problems. "It's too much," choruses his wife, Agnes, who herself is the solo waitress-bus-girl-salad-chef around.

Anyway, on the tray are bits of shrimp, salmon, scampi, Cajun catfish, halibut or whatever happens to be on the agenda that day, served with steamed vegetables of the day and rice. I also tried a shrimp mousse dish with the healthful high protein rice Schweiger insists on using, a dish he will enter in an annual Chefs de Cuisine contest, if he can pry himself loose from his establishment. Both Schweigers are long-term members of Chefs de Cuisine, an organization of hotel chefs; she worked as a garde manger and he as executive chef in numerous hotels and restaurants.

Schweiger, who says he's from Hungary yet refuses to limit his cuisine to a single region or nation, prepares his native beef goulash in the mode of a stir-fry. It's a conversion he developed because customers were not exactly breaking down the door for the heavier classic version. Still, it was a disappointment, probably the weakest dish on the menu, perhaps because Schweiger is a fish-chicken chef, not a meat cook.

For Pasta Lovers

But you don't need goulash when you have angel hair pasta marinara. I, a passionate pasta eater, can vouch for its authenticity. Boy, was it good. Al dente, tasty and abundant. You get more than you pay for here.

He also does several other pasta dishes, including homemade capelletti stuffed with ricotta and shrimp, agnelotti, spaghetti Bologn ese and fettuccine Alfredo, which, considering the size and complexity of the menu, might burden the already burdened menu, good as the pasta is. The trouble is that Schweiger is good at too many things, including pizza, a very good Provencale- style thin-crusted pizza that is salty and tasty enough to appeal to any junk-food junkie on this planet. There he was, punching and kneading dough for the pizza Magherita , and my thought was to stop him before he killed himself from overwork that evening.

So you get the idea?

Before you take off for Bongyory, a word about the desserts. How do classic pears Belle Helene , crepes Suzettes, baked Alaska sound? Do they appeal to you? They did to me.

Bongyory, 1437 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 969-9443. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. except for Saturday and Sunday, when the restaurant is open for dinner only. Kitchen closes 11 p.m. Major credit cards accepted. Parking on premises. No liquor. Reservations suggested. Average entree $7.

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