RESTAURANT REVIEW : Cafe Montana Embraces Most of the West Side, With Mixed Results

Cafe Montana still lives on the street whose name it bears, but it's roamed down the block a piece. Now it's housed in a grand new location on the corner, a place of bright lights and vast windows that make it look from the street like a diorama in some future museum. You almost expect a sign: West Siders Dining, Circa 1990.

The restaurant does look thoroughly "West Sidey," chock full of plate glass doors, wooden panels and nonfunctional metal a la Angeli. Come to think of it, the menu looks as if every restaurant on the West Side had suddenly melted together. You've got your Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Korean, French, Italian, and Lithuanian (well, Cafe Montana always had the Lithuanian thing pretty much to itself); your black beans, your pesto, and every correct vinegar under the sun--rice, balsamic, raspberry.

It's hard to avoid the feeling that, having moved up to its diorama location, Cafe Montana is reaching for a full-scale synopsis of the West Side. Much of the time it succeeds quite well. The grilled vegetable salad, for instance, with its thin-sliced eggplant, squashes, peppers and onions, all bittersweet from grilling, dressed in vinaigrette and sprinkled with goat cheese, is light and fresh, everything California cuisine was supposed to be.

Furthermore, the black and white capellini with sun-dried tomatoes and pickled peppers is a warming, cheering sort of dish. And there's nothing absurd about a slightly sweet lemon-yogurt dressing on a salad. The deep-fried catfish is crisp and full of ginger flavor, if not exactly photogenic. Cafe Montana cooks chicken with admirable care, and possibly the best entree is the simple chicken brochette.

And, of course, Cafe Montana still serves beef-filled Lithuanian dumplings ( koldunai ), which look like Chinese steamed dumplings except for the sour cream and bacon on the side. They're one of the restaurant's biggest hits, and available either as an appetizer or an entree. The rich-flavored brown bread, by the way, also seems to have a Baltic quality to it, long smooth loaves often containing raisins or walnuts.

But Cafe Montana is clearly aiming higher than these well-worn paths. The rack of lamb (a racklet, to be more precise: three chops) comes in an exotic but actually pretty neutral brown "Beijing barbecue sauce," which does it no harm, if little positive good. The chicken skewers appetizer has two sauces to its name, a sweetish peanut sauce that tastes as if there's some tomato in it and a yellow curry sauce. They're best mixed together. On the side comes (why not?) a Korean salad of julienned carrot and radish.

The supreme high-wire act is the vegetarian moo shu. The menu says the ultra-exotic sauce it comes in is hoisin, but it really tastes like fresh caramel sauce tempered with vinegar. A strange idea, but it's tasty and no more overbearing than many a peanut sauce.

And then the menu goes over the edge. Turkey breast with corn and beans in balsamic vinaigrette sounds pretty good, but there's not much vinegar in the vinaigrette, and the result is appallingly oily and insipid. So is the calf's liver with perfunctorily caramelized onions and the skimpiest bit of red wine sauce. I can't think why anybody thought the rich, funky taste of liver needed a sweet and oily treatment, but there it is, a dish that can turn off even liver lovers.

I hate to go on. I'll only mention that the calamari fritti "Mediterranean style" has two sauces: rice vinegar (not bad) and ketchup (ridiculous).

The pastries are said to come from the Rose Cafe, and there are some quite good ones. The mountain blackberry pie has a tart, unusual berry flavoring. The apple pecan pie is a tall one topped with browned sugar, the apples mixed with pecans. There are a couple of chocolate cakes, and some crumble pies, rather like crumb cakes, though here I've found some of the fruit a bit sour.

Cafe Montana has had a rough journey to its new place, even in getting its beer and wine license. Some of the neighbors are trying to get it denied, and there's a petition you can sign if you want to be counted on the restaurant's side. Its real problem, though, is with the blind alleys it's wandered into in pursuing West Side universality. I hope Cafe Montana gets its license, but above all I hope they do something--and quick--about that turkey and that liver.

Recommended dishes: vegetable moo shu , $6.75; grilled vegetable salad, $8.50; black and white capellini, $10.50; chicken brochette, $11.50; mountain blackberry pie, $4.50.

Cafe Montana, 1534 Montana Ave., Santa Monica. (213) 829-3990. Breakfast 8 to 11:30 a.m. Tuesday through Sunday; lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; Sunday brunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. No alcoholic beverages. Parking lot. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $36 to $60.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World