The very name "Brooklyn" evokes fond memories for lots of people, so a place called Brooklyn Diner is bound to draw a crowd.
Fine. OK. My beef with the concept is largely about beef, or rather the absence of it. This breezy Sherman Oaks restaurant serves neither corned beef nor pastrami. What's up with that?
I'm also talking about beef in the authenticity (or "Where's the beef?") sense. It goes without saying the service here lacks the personality you'd get in Flatbush or Bensonhurst. But this is a place that grills, rather than steams, its hot dogs. Would Zero Mostel or Norman Mailer ever set foot in here? Fuhgeddabouddit.
Well, so what? Brooklyn Diner appears headed for success anyway.
Despite the snazzy corrugated metal ceiling and shiny parquet floor, legacies from this location's brief career as a California Cuisine place named King's Road 818, the new owners try hard to remind you of New York. The menu reads like a glossary of New Yorkese. Dishes have names like forgetaboudit (clearly a misspelling of "fuhgeddabouddit"), da nosh and Battery Park. And I like the fact that the waiters wear real Brooklyn Dodgers warm-up jackets. (Hey, didn't the Dodgers play here once too?)
But these attempts are mostly window dressing in what is definitely more a California than a New York environment. For instance, there's herbed olive oil (hey, whazzat?) at the tables. On the walls are posters of the Three Stooges and "Goodfellas."This is Los Angeles being New York, rather than New York being New York.
I wouldn't raise these objections if they weren't equally true of the food. Much of it is OK, but what can you say about a New York diner that serves a toasted bagel with lox, onions and tomatoes (that's "da nosh")--and then has you spread an off-brand cream cheese from a pre-portioned plastic cup? My Yiddishe mama would have said "Feh!" and walked out in a huff.
The food is best when the kitchen plays it straight. Fried calamari and shrimp ("88th St.") is a good-sized bowl, and the seafood that fills it to the brim is fresh and crisply battered. "Matza bawl" soup is a thick chicken noodle soup with big pieces of chicken breast and an acceptably fluffy matzo ball plunked down in the middle of it all, and the pleasing broth is intensely flavored.
"Mott St." is your basic Chinese chicken salad. (Mott Street in Manhattan is near Chinatown, get it? Although Chinese chicken salad is really an L.A. dish.) And it's a fine, not-too-sweet version
One thing Brooklyn Diner does have in common with casual restaurants in the Big Apple is that it serves breakfast all day. The Forgetaboudit, I'm sure you're dying to know, is a three-egg omelet with bacon and mozzarella, served with toast and a pile of less-than-crisp potato wedges ("Coney Island fries").
The menu is huge, so I've barely scratched the surface. It has kosher hot dogs smothered in pungent sauerkraut, but you can get better ones in several places on the Boulevard. My potato knish was strangely dry. The restaurant was out of Dr. Brown sodas on two of the three occasions I visited.
It often runs out of desserts, but they do get New York cheesecake from Junior's in Flatbush, and it is delicious--if you are lucky to get a piece that has been properly thawed.
If not--well, fuhgeddabouddit.
Brooklyn Diner, 14502 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Open seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Street parking. Beer and wine only. All major cards. Dinner for two, $21-$39. Suggested dishes: matza bawl, $2.50-$3.50; Mott St., $7.95; 88th St., $7.95; Boro Park, $9.95. Call (818) 995-7334.