Of all my eating companions, Suzie is the most intrepid. Sweetbreads? Tripe? Sea urchin? No problem. I can always count on her to eat with abandon. Except for the time I took her to an entirely fat-free restaurant. After we left in our separate cars, I spied her in my rearview mirror, pulling up to a Chinese restaurant and dashing in for some takeout.
So this time when I invite her to Pyramids, a new low-fat restaurant on 3rd Street, all I tell her is the time and the address. For all she knows, we're eating Egyptian. When I arrive, she is already ensconced in a booth upholstered in an earth-toned abstract tapestry, sipping Chianti and eyeing the brushed-metal chairs that seem to skitter on slender, insect-like legs. The place does look pretty hip for a storefront on boutique and restaurant row.
The waiter brings menus, water and more wine. Then he's back, bearing crusty Italian bread and a couple of dips. Suzie pounces on the garlicky white bean hummus. She doesn't hear that the bright green spinach dip is made with low-fat cream cheese, and I'm not telling.
Too late. Suzie's eyes narrow alarmingly as soon as the waiter intones: "Nothing on the menu has added fat or more than 10 grams total fat--except for dishes that include animal proteins, such as turkey and chicken." Before the waiter slips away, Suzie has a question. "What's the menu item with the most fat? Because that's what I want to order!" she declares. After thinking long and hard, the waiter tells her about the chef's special of the night--veal flank steak with garlic mashed potatoes and a black peppercorn sauce. Sold.
First, though, Suzie and I share a trio of salads. Tabbouleh is fluffy, brightened with diced tomato and chopped parsley. Wedges of Roma tomatoes are refreshing. But we keep diving back into the Santa Fe salad of fusilli studded with shrimp, calamari, and tiny bay scallops tossed in a creamy, chili-spiked dressing. Somebody here knows how to cook.
From a dozen pastas, I pick chicken ravioli, a gorgeous plate of wavy-edged pouches strewn with wild mushrooms and soft ribbons of leek. I urge Suzie to try some. "Get out!" she cries after taking a bite. "This is not low-fat!" Cloaked in a rich-tasting reduced chicken stock and stuffed with ricotta and chicken, this ravioli is every bit as good as more traditional versions.
Suzie's veal flank steak, sliced and beautifully pink inside, also uses a richly flavored stock as the sauce, this one loaded with crushed peppercorns. Real mashed potatoes don't seem to miss the cream or butter; I suspect yet another stock is the genie. As we're polishing off the last of our entrees, a tall, young chef saunters up to introduce himself and ask how we like our meal. We can be genuinely enthusiastic. "But how do you get so much flavor into everything without using any fat?" Suzie wonders aloud, just a bit skeptical.
The chef, David D'Amore, formerly of L'Orangerie and Tribeca, explains that he always has a half-dozen stocks simmering on the stove--including saffron, wild mushroom and roasted garlic--which he then reduces by half for intensity. It's the way he likes to cook for himself every day. And it makes a lot of sense. Especially when he admits that, because he's not a purist, such cooking allows him to indulge guilt-free in the occasional foie gras and steak.
Since that evening, Suzie has been back to Pyramids several times. So have I. Salad ingredients are cleverly cut or shredded to add textural interest and dressings are anything but bland. Two worth noting are the Oriental chicken salad in a bright ginger dressing and the barbecue chicken salad with black beans, crunchy jicama and corn kernels in a garlic-herb ranch dressing. Sweet corn also goes into a hearty chicken and corn chowder.
Risottos with wild mushroom or saffron-scented shrimp are amazing, considering they're made with no butter. What they do have is good ingredients, and that concentrated stock. I'm less enthusiastic about the pastas in tomato sauce: A shower of seafood or strips of Cajun chicken with a healthy dose of chili flakes can't disguise the fact that it needs a smidgen of olive oil.
Chicken paillards lightly browned like veal piccata, with lemon and capers and a spoonful of good stock, are wonderful, as are the accompanying roasted potatoes with garlic and rosemary. The turkey burger is juicy enough, though fast-food burger hounds may miss the grease. And bite after bite of the moist, fine-textured turkey meatloaf is tiresome. But the menu has great side dishes: those light mashed potatoes, an interesting mix of nicely grilled vegetables, fresh steamed spinach turned out of a mold, "smashed" yams and more.
When it comes to dessert, I prefer to do without than substitute ingredients like butter or cream or real chocolate. That said, the best finale here is the fat-free hot fudge sundae cake--warm, moist slabs of cake with scoops of nonfat frozen yogurt and a dark cocoa sauce. Except for the way the taste doesn't linger, this dessert comes pretty close to the real thing.
Pyramids succeeds because chef D'Amore and owner Bruce Saiber (who says he has lost more than 200 pounds on a low-fat diet) aren't afraid to turn up the flavor dial with garlic and spices and herbs. They've also figured out how to cook without adding fats and without stripping flavor from foods. It doesn't work with every dish, and I don't think they have to take it to such extremes (that is, no added fat as opposed to lower fat). But they're definitely on to something.
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CUISINE: Low-fat California. AMBIENCE: Minimalist storefront with tapestry-covered booths, takeout counter and an enclosed patio. BEST DISHES: corn-chicken chowder, Oriental chicken salad, barbecue chopped chicken salad, wild mushroom risotto, chicken ravioli with wild mushrooms, chicken piccata, fat-free hot fudge sundae cake. WINE PICK: Ruffino Chianti, 1993. FACTS: 8222-1/2 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles; (213) 653-2121. Dinner for two, food only, $20 to $38; no corkage fee. Closed Saturday and Sunday lunch only. Valet parking.