RESTAURANT REVIEW : Back to Cool : Eclectic Cafe features pizza and pasta and recalls a college hangout--with an arty twist.

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Brian Sheehan's Eclectic Cafe has plenty of peculiar charm. It's the sort of dimly lit, oddly arty L.A. place you'd expect to see in an Alan Rudolph movie.

But that's not all there is to the story. Like Tommy Tang's Restaurant and Orville Redenbacher's Gourmet Popcorn, this is one of those properties where a thoughtful visitor will constantly be trying to guess why the owner has thrust himself so boldly into the spotlight--billing himself, as it were, above the title. I can't be sure, but I'll hazard the guess that Sheehan is intent on treading the path to celebrity.

You'll probably figure out who he is when you see him. Chef/owner Sheehan is the pleasant-looking, well-dressed fellow in his late 20s with reddish-blond hair and a raffish smile. At the time of my last visit, he was carrying a handsome attache case and looked like the consummate young businessman. (I have yet to observe him in chef's whites.) He's also a nice guy. When you pay the check, he might hand you a fat, homemade chocolate chip cookie from an overloaded pastry tray.

If you've ever spent any time in a college town, The Eclectic Cafe will seem familiar --it brings to mind a hip campus hangout. The wall nearest the front door is faced in brick and covered with posters and notices, as if it were a makeshift bulletin board outside a student union somewhere. The tables are covered with white butcher paper, and the waiters wear black-and-white Eclectic Cafe T-shirts.

An arty campus hangout. Quirky oil paintings and a dozen or so black-and-white photographs hang in austere frames on walls painted a metallic gray. Sculptures are haphazardly placed in crannies here and there. Count on the music to be moody, soulful jazz, usually a wailing tenor sax.

This youthful attitude surfaces more than once in what comes out of the kitchen--which, to tell the truth, isn't really all that eclectic. It is eccentric, though. Subtract a couple of dishes such as chicken satay, grilled salmon Nicoise and grilled swordfish with kiwi-mango-strawberry salsa, and you're left with a modern California version of northern Italian. There's a strong emphasis on pasta, risotto and pizza, framing some meat entrees: a few grilled fish, some chicken, one or two steaks.

A couple of appetizers took me right back to college days, mostly for the good. When you order stuffed mushrooms, you get five medium-sized mushroom caps with a tasty filling of spinach, Gruyere and walnuts--the sort of dish I first ate during the '60s, when it dawned on us that it was possible to cook without meat. Bruschetta eclectica isn't entirely dissimilar to the mushrooms, being mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes and a subtle spinach pesto on toasted Italian bread.

The crab cakes are spongy and don't have much flavor, though the "eclectic" tartar sauce that comes with them is interesting, tinged green from herbs. Chicken satay comes with a thick, sweet Indonesian peanut sauce and is quite good.

There are a few direct hits and a few solid misses among the 20 pastas, four risottos and four pizzas on this menu. Pizzas are served on wooden planks (nice idea) and have crisp, bubbly crusts. The one I tasted, called four Caesars, was your basic four-cheese pizza with a pesto sauce base. The cheeses--mozzarella, provolone, Gorgonzola and Parmesan--work well together; the pesto sauce is sheer overkill.

Eclectic shrimp risotto includes shiitake mushrooms, fat tiger shrimp, garlic and lots of Romano; too bad it's so soupy. The pastas save the day, though. I especially like linguine salsiccia . This pasta comes with sliced Italian sausage, sauteed mixed peppers and a rich marinara sauce, making a nicely balanced dish. Other good ones are the rosemary chicken pasta and an unusual Greek-style penne with Kalamata olives, oregano, parsley, garlic and feta cheese.

Balanced is not what you'd call the kiwi-mango-strawberry salsa that comes on swordfish. Anyway, the swordfish itself is nice, as is the grilled ahi with soy ginger sauce (and a few sesame seeds). The roasted grilled chicken is a workmanlike version.

I'm not going to say anything as nice about the grilled New York steak, which is supposed to be served with a side of shallot-garlic demiglace. Mine came drenched in the stuff.

For dessert, you might try the best tiramisu I have tasted in recent months, the excellent chocolate creme brulee , the cakey chocolate brownie or the gummy chocolate cheesecake, among others. But pass on the gluey carrot cake, no matter how inviting it looks. It's impossibly sugary, and took me back to my days in a food co-op. Take home a cookie or two instead.


Where and When

What: Brian Sheehan's Eclectic Cafe.

Location: 5156 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

Suggested dishes: Bruschetta eclectica , $4.95; stuffed mushrooms, $5.95; rosemary chicken pasta, $8.95; linguine salsiccia , $9.95.

Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner 3 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 3 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; brunch 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Price: Dinner for two, $23 to $36. Beer and wine. Street parking; valet parking on weekends. American Express, MasterCard, Visa, Discover and Diner's.

Call: (818) 760-2233.

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