Lots of Room for the Lunch Crowd

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's peaceful up at the top of Sepulveda Pass. Crickets. Shrubbery. Vagrant breezes. The only clues that you're in L.A. are the distant growl of the 405 Freeway and a lot of modern architecture by Moshe Safdie.

That would be the Skirball Cultural Center, a rambling suite of strikingly designed buildings where the theater and other facilities bear familiar L.A. culture-maven names such as Ahmanson and Taper. More or less the same goes for the center's restaurant. Zeidler's Cafe is named for Marvin and Judy Zeidler, well-known investors in restaurants around town, who are friends of the Skirball and have consulted with the cafe.

In the Skirball Center (which has parking lots on either side of the complex of structures--if you can't get into the first one you see, just keep going along the rambling driveway), Zeidler's is located between the museum and the Taper Courtyard. It's a solid-looking sort of room with blond wood lattice on the ceiling and the cement walls, and a suggestion of vast arcs in its shape. It's basically a lunch place serving kosher food of the dairy persuasion under rabbinical supervision. There's no meat from any land creature here--nothing that chews the cud or cleaves the hoof or even flaps the wing. Even the Thai barbecue pizza is made with tofu "chicken tenders."

The menu leans to lunch-type things: soups, salads, sandwiches, pizzas and pastas (the Zeidlers always spend part of the year in Italy, so this is kind of a kosher Tuscan place).

The soups include a surprisingly convincing vegetarian chili and a sweet borscht with plenty of julienne beets, with sour cream on the side. The soup of the day might be gazpacho--a thick puree of fresh tomatoes and just a bit of onion. On the other hand, I've had an asparagus soup with rather little asparagus flavor.

One of the best things here is on the salad list, the chopped salad. It's a light, delicate pile of lettuces and tomatoes tossed with cheese and bits of bell pepper. The pot sticker salad, on the other hand, is like a very good Chinese chicken salad--lovely greens, nice ginger-sesame dressing--but the puffy pot stickers themselves are chewy and almost empty.

The sandwiches are all made with excellent bread. The salmon pastrami club, using wonderful, crusty corn rye, won't convince you for a second that you're eating pastrami, but the filling is good cured, pepper-rubbed salmon.

The grilled portabello sandwich, on dark wheat, has a meaty, substantial filling of grilled mushrooms, caramelized onions and melted Swiss cheese. (It tends to get a little soggy, so eat carefully.) Sandwiches come with salads, such as new potatoes with balsamic vinaigrette.

Oh, the Creative Things They Do With Tofu

One thoroughly Italian dish is penne pasta with stewed eggplant and a good fresh tomato sauce that probably has a sprinkle of sugar in it. The "Tuscan" frittata is definitely sweet, but it's pretty irresistible--an egg cake mixed with crumbled tofu "sausage" and black olives, the whole thing topped with greens, tomatoes and roasted red peppers.

That Thai barbecue pizza has a pretty flavorful medium-thin crust and plenty of cheese and barbecue sauce. The tofu "chicken" on it is inoffensive; in fact, it gives this California cliche a certain lightness.

The desserts tend to change day by day. There always seems to be brownies--two big wedges of rather stiff-textured cake with strong, dark-chocolate flavor, served with raspberries and chocolate syrup. If there's chocolate creme brulee, it's likely to have a smooth, pudding-like texture, very little caramelized sugar crust and a splash of orange flavor.

Actually, one of the best desserts is listed in the "pizzas and more" section of the menu: cheese blintzes. The filling of the crepes is not overly sweet, and it comes with raspberry syrup and fresh fruit.

Zeidler's also serves a buffet on evenings when there's a theatrical production at the Skirball Center. The food is cooked in the separate catering kitchen because it includes meat choices--say, carved roast beef and chicken breast in tomato sauce--as well as fish, salads, petits fours and cookies (the chocolate-chip cookies are particularly good).* Zeidler's Cafe, Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A. (310) 440-4576. Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; dinner buffet on theater nights. Wine. Parking lot. All major cards. Lunch main dishes, $6.95-$9.95; desserts, $2.25-$3.75.* What to Get: borscht, vegetarian chili, chopped salad, roasted portabello sandwich, Tuscan frittata, cheese blintzes, brownies.

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Saturday June 9, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 Zones Desk 2 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction Restaurant review--The review of Zeidler's Cafe at the Skirball Cultural Center in Thursday's Calendar Weekend section incorrectly stated that Zeidler's menu is under rabbinical supervision. Zeidler's uses all kosher products but does not operate under rabbinical supervision. The menu is kosher dairy. In addition, the phone number was incorrect. The correct number for Zeidler's Cafe is (310) 440-4515; the general number for the Skirball is (310) 440-4500.
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