RESTAURANT REVIEW : Yucatan Grill: Casual Dress, Casual Food

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Yucatan Grill is a narrow, little cafe that feels mostly like a small neighborhood bar, a bar that also serves food. A waitress's first words are apt to be, "Would you like beer, wine or homemade sangria?" The interior is all highly saturated colors: yellow, hot pink, deep blue, sky blue. A row of small tables topped with thick brown paper lines the wooden banquette. There are more tables outside on a cozy, small patio.

Over the course of visiting this restaurant, I ran into people who didn't know where the Yucatan Grill was, or what kind of food it served, but they had heard about the place. The Yucatan Grill's first claim to fame is that it is the restaurant of Christy Bono, daughter of Sonny, a former restaurateur himself. Does this herald the next generation of celebrity-owned restaurants: the children-of-celebrities-owned restaurants?

The clientele at the Yucatan Grill is casual: couples grabbing a bite to eat, friends looking to have a good conversation over a cold beer. One night, there was a guy in a baseball uniform with his girlfriend, a British man dining alone, a sweet, tiny runaway dog named Cream Puff who smelled the food and sneaked inside.

The service was cheerful and attentive--more attentive, we found, if we sat indoors. On the patio, one tends to be out of sight, out of mind. I also noticed that only some of the waitresses remembered to warn a customer that the fresh lemonade is of the sweeten-your-own variety.

The chips, which arrived shortly after we did, were warm. The salsa was so-so. Not lively enough.

The hand-printed menu was photocopied on fluorescent bond paper. Many of the appetizers could be classed as "drinking food"--crunchy fried items that go well with beer. Waitresses invariably recommended the Oysters Yucatan, oysters baked in the shell along with a heavy cloak of cheese and spinach. "You'll like 'em even if you don't like oysters," is the sales pitch and, indeed, the little nugget of shellfish does seem almost extraneous under all the melted cheese.

Crab fritters--small, free-form crab cakes, like a cross between a crab cake and a hush puppy--were a little gummy. The popcorn shrimp were crisp and good. Cauliflower "Dorado" was breaded and deep-fried so that the cauliflower was almost creamy inside.

Caesar salad had a good dressing, but the grossest croutons: cubes of deep-fried bread soaked with grease. The blackened scallop salad had a generous number of nicely cooked and spiced little scallops, but the so-called bacon vinaigrette was unnervingly sugary.

Over the course of our first visit, it slowly dawned on us that the name Yucatan Grill was deceptive. We walked in expecting, well, more of a Caribbean, Southern Mexico flair to the food--plantains, pickled onions, maybe even some pit-roasted pork. No such luck. Any ethnicity in the food is toned down, all exotics repressed, often under heavy cheese. But hey, the name has a good ring to it.

The Yucatan chicken tacos were semi-soft shelled and utterly bland--a decent taco-truck taco offers far more flavor and kick. More interesting was a whole chayote squash, here, given a cheese-rich stuffing topped with sweet, mildly spiced shrimp.

We also liked the muffuletta sandwich, which originated far from the Yucatan, in the town of New Orleans: ham and cheese on a bun livened up with an olive salad. One friend loved her chimichangas, a kind of deep-fried burrito stuffed with seven vegetables and topped with sour cream. The so-called Killer Kabobs, on the other hand, were a bust, at least the ones made from steak. The beef was tasteless, mealy from its marinade, and tough. I fed most of it on the sly to Cream Puff. She barked for more.

Chilean sea bass was served in thin, lightly cooked square slabs which somewhat mitigated the natural fluffiness of the fish. But the flavor was good, and the cilantro butter unobtrusive.

Most entrees came with a celery-rich "Spanish" rice and black beans. Neither the rice nor the beans had attributes that elevated them above the status of "filler."

The Yucatan Grill fills an odd, possibly silly niche in the restaurant world: It best suits those people who lean toward an appreciation for El Torito's Americanized, cheese-rich Mexican cooking, but dislike big-chain ambiance. You might not have the meal of your life, but you're apt to relax, chat a bit with your neighbors, or befriend a stray Cream Puff.

The Yucatan Grill , 2518 Main St . , Santa Monica , (310) 396-2711. Lunch and dinner daily. Beer and wine. Major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only , $23 to $44.

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