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Encounter in the Sky

TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

At night, the futuristic Theme Building at LAX, designed in 1961 by architect Paul Williams to usher in the Space Age, glows an unearthly violet. Tucked under its spidery arches is LAX’s latest dining spot, Encounter. Leave your car with the valet, step into the sleek silver elevator. As the doors close, eerie music pours from the purple-lit ceiling.

The doors reopen at the restaurant level, where we’re greeted by a waitress in a silver space bunny get-up with short skirt and wrap-on silver spats. The whole place throbs with saturated purples, blues, turquoise, acid greens in blobs and swirls and splotches. The crater-shaped bar is an undulating surface of resin in glowing super-saturated colors. Lava lamps with what look like flying saucer hats gurgle and spin their unearthly light against the stained glass, pearlized surfaces and brushed aluminum walls. Cool.

And what a view! Tables are set along the wraparound windows, all the better to watch those big jumbo jets lumber down from the sky. The menu, by consulting chef John Sedlar, who created the now-closed Bikini and Abiquiu in Santa Monica, and executive chef Patrick Glennon, may seem like something from Mars to weary travelers stepping off the elevator. The menu is an eccentric collection of dishes inspired by Asian, French, Southwestern, Italian, South American and California cuisines--everything under the moon, in fact.

But it just may be too ambitious. Cuban shrimp cocktail is four tired shrimp bound together with a band of gold fried plantain and served with an undercooked black bean salsa and enough spunky cocktail sauce for five pounds of shrimp. Blue corn tostadas, two stacks of miniature tortillas layered with goat cheese, are marooned in a lake of black bean and chile sauce. Lemon pepper gnocchi are dreadful, gluey scraps of dough inundated with an oily eggplant stew.

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At his best, Sedlar is one of the most brilliant, original chefs in L.A. But even he sometimes has trouble cooking his own food. The globe-trotting menu, at least at a first encounter, seems too complicated for the kitchen. Best tactic: Have a drink, enjoy the view and stick with the simpler items: a burger or chicken sandwich at lunch, prime rib or chops at dinner. Or at least until the restaurant gets really prepared for takeoff.

BE THERE

Encounter Restaurant, Los Angeles International Airport, 209 World Way, Los Angeles. (310) 215-5151. Open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. Major credit cards accepted. Valet parking. Appetizers $6-$13; entrees $16-$30.


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