Out Take Cafe on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City displays no bright sign on the street; at night you know it by dim-colored letters on a dark awning, and a glimpse of customers hunched over food within. The room is a narrow storefront minimally modified to accommodate a long, stainless steel kitchen, banquette seating and a small bar area with stools and high tables. The walls are butter yellow, the furniture dark, battered wood. And the host wears a hot purple blazer, matching beret and a weightlifter's belt. Forty customers would pack the place.
Because it is so small and unassuming and plays to a casual neighborhood clientele, and because the prices are so low, I expected decent, inexpensive food, nothing more. After several visits, I knew better: There comes a moment in everyone's first time at Out Take when they stop talking and frown in concentration, as if suddenly noticing what's in their mouths. "Wow," they invariably say. "This food is really good."
That moment came for me with the crab cakes, when I found celery root in the remoulade, a terrific, classic touch that's long been eclipsed by every modern mayonnaise concoction under the sun.
Chef Norman Cheng, I realized, knows what he's doing.
But he also likes a risk: His menu is a spirited mix of Russian, Asian and French bistro food. Salads and appetizers tend to be more surprising and creative than the pastas and entrees.
Ukrainian borscht, a clear plum-red soup with cabbage and chunks of potato, beet and carrots, springs to life with a generous splash of vinegar and a floating mass of tangy sour cream. I want some right now. In fact, I'll take some of that meaty black bean chili, too. Large, well-weighted soup spoons are a nice touch.
Vegetable wonton soup is a clean, clear broth with three beautiful noodle dumplings: one each of broccoli, carrot and potato. The filled half-moon pasta with fluted edges recurs in various other forms: as fried potato vareniki , mushroom dumplings, an assortment of ravioli.
The vareniki , golden-brown dumplings, are chewy like pot-stickers; you eat them with caramelized onions and sour cream. Split an order with at least one friend or you'll have no room for dinner.
Plump, fresh black mussels in a delicious broth with lemongrass and cream may be the most expensive appetizer ($6.95), but there are easily enough for four people.
Duck confit is fall-apart tender but neither crispy nor deeply flavored; the endive it sits on rests, in turn, in a pool of duck grease--tasty grease, mind you, but more than any one person should eat in a week.
Most salads on the menu are meal-sized; if you want just a small plate of greens to eat before an entree, there's a lovely "one dollar salad" with any entree.
Like the vareniki , spicy turkey ravioli is fried, but then it's sauced with a strongly acidic tomatillo salsa: All told, the dish is too intense. Buckwheat pasta comes with sea scallops tall as haystacks and big flappy wild mushrooms in a pallid broth: This dish is too bland. Fedelini (which looks precisely like spaghetti), with tomatoes and an earthy dried ricotta cheese, is not remarkable, but satisfying and just right.
The lamb shank is classic: a big club of meat cooked to dark, sticky, caramelized perfection. Sliced roasted pork tenderloin is paired with a subtle, effective amount of bleu cheese and pine nuts. But braised chicken with olives tastes like yesterday's reheated stew, and is way, way, way too salty, even when cut with polenta. Roasted cod on mashed potatoes, another bistro classic, is carpeted with capers, another error of excess. After the fact, my vegetarian friend is told that the tawny sauce with her grilled salmon and savoy cabbage is made with sherry, cream and beef broth. Oops.
Lemon sorbet is served in a hollowed-out lemon, cantaloupe in a cantaloupe, pumpkin in a charmingly small pumpkin. Good looks aside, the sorbets are hard and granular. Lemon meringue pie is the right choice. Other nice touches: individual press-pots for coffee and tea, and tea made from fresh mint.
* Out Take Cafe, 12159 Ventura Blvd., Studio City . (818) 760-1111. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner. Beer and wine served. Visa, Master Card and American Express accepted. Dinner for two, food only $23-$65.