LunaPark in West Hollywood is many things: bar, cabaret, rock club and restaurant. One night recently, a folk rock band was performing in the main room, a woman was singing like Edith Piaf downstairs, and she would be followed by impressionists who used audience members for their material but would not, the hostess promised, be too cruel to anybody.
We sat in the dining room, a relatively still place in the heart of all this activity. The last time I'd been in this room, the place was called Erica's and had emerald green walls and a florid, upscale supper club ambience. Now, as LunaPark, the room has been redone in typical, slapdash rock club chic. Design elements include upended lampshades nailed to the ceiling, unpainted wood lattice straight from Home Depot, a tube of painted chicken wire tucked in a lit recess. Erica's jewel-like beveled windows look decidedly out of place.
Maybe the booths are comfortable--I've never once scored a seat in one--but the small round tables along the banquettes are on the small side and, as is often the case in clubs, too close together. I spent one evening kicking either my companions or the table's center post while the couple next to me necked and cuddled in such close proximity, it felt uncomfortably as if I were in bed with them.
Early in the evening, the crowd is mixed and generally older; around 9, a younger club scene starts to take over. When two fiftysomething music company execs leave, their table goes to a young couple. Small and skinny as an 8-year-old, she wears a spandex dress only an inch or two longer than a bathing suit. He can't sit still, leaves her for five, 10 minutes at a stretch; when their food arrives, she takes two or three sips of soup; he manages part of a steak.
Too bad for them, as Robert Gadsby, the chef here, clearly has ability: I was impressed especially with my first meals, eaten there several months ago. A sweet, robust corn chowder had the charming and delicious garnish of chewy popped corn. Butternut squash soup, poured at the table, forms a velvety orange sea around an island of mashed potatoes heaped with shreds of spicy chicken. A slab of pepper-crusted rare tuna nested on braised fennel and buttered, crinkly savoy cabbage couldn't have been better--or bigger. Moist, pan-roasted chicken breast with garlic mashed potatoes is entirely satisfactory, as is the rack of lamb.
Another night, however, the baked risotto appetizer features a mound of chewy, beguilingly crisped riso; unfortunately, mushrooms in the promised wild mushroom ragout not only are not wild, they taste exactly like canned mushrooms and their sauce is strongly redolent of a product like Kitchen Bouquet. Red snapper, a dinner special, allegedly comes in a wild rice crust; a wild rice mush would be more accurate, and the sauce boasts more of those canned-tasting mushrooms and faux baby carrots.
There is a carelessness in other dishes too, as if the kitchen feels no obligation to adhere to menu descriptions and, instead, tosses whatever's handy onto the plate. In some instances, this isn't too annoying: The delicious potato cannoli is supposed to come with dried sausage, but arrives instead with chunks of stewed lamb; the spinach with the pan-roasted chickens is actually rapini. At other times, the customer is clearly shortchanged. Steamed pencil asparagus with tomato fondue and imported Italian prosciutto lacks the costly prosciutto; no "laced cookie" accompanies the caramelized bananas as promised; domestic mushrooms replace pricey wild mushrooms. Needless to say, such omissions and shortcuts are not reflected in the bill.
Gadsby has the reputation of being a roving publicity hound: He often stays at a place until the reviews are in and then moves on. He is still at LunaPark. We saw him schmoozing with customers in the dining room. I recall eating at the World Cafe in Santa Monica after he'd left; the kitchen there was still trying to cook his dishes and succeeding only in producing big, confused plates of food. Gadsby may still be on the premises at LunaPark, but judging from the food, he's already gone.
* LunaPark, 665 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 652-0611. Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Full bar. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only $42-$60.