A long night at the local hacienda

Times Staff Writer

In an overloaded restaurant scene like L.A.'s, it's not surprising that restaurateurs work every angle to ensure their restaurants stand out. They might subtly (or not so subtly) exaggerate the chef's resume, court celebrities or, in one notorious instance, serve free dinners the first week.

One desperate ploy is to glue musty glamour from the past onto a new concept. There was the (very) short-lived place called Fatty's for Fatty Arbuckle, on the wisp of the connection that the silent film star had once lived in the building. The sequel to Chasen's, which mostly involved buying the name and serving the famous chili, quickly failed because it wasn't really Chasen's. And then there's the modest Trocadero on Sunset Boulevard that doesn't come close to reflecting the allure of the famous nightclub on the strip.

Now the Spanish Kitchen in Hollywood, which closed under mysterious circumstances in the early '60s and sat empty ever since, has not one but two new lives. A new restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard has assumed the name, and to add to the confusion has appended the words "authentic Mexican cuisine" to a near-replica of the original restaurant's sign. Meanwhile, the exclusive Prive Salon in the completely renovated original site has held on to the original vertical sign, darkening out everything but the first three letters so it now spells "spa."

If this new Spanish Kitchen offered interesting, well-prepared regional dishes, I wouldn't care what they called it; L.A. has a dearth of good Mexican restaurants. There are taco stands galore, but nowhere can you find the best of regional cuisine on the level of Chicago's Frontera Grill and Topolobambo. Border Grill certainly counted in the early years, and the perennial East L.A. favorite La Serenata de Garibaldi seems to be content resting on its laurels.

Mexican a la Hollywood

The owner, Greg Morris, has lavished considerable time and money on transforming the former Shark Bar into an elaborate hacienda-style restaurant. Yards of fanciful wrought iron and vivid Mexican tiles decorate the large two-level dining room and bar, which has an adjoining roomy patio where nobody thinks twice about lighting up. The exterior of the building has been plastered to look as if it's weathered the centuries. But that double plastic curtain closing off the broad doorway and the guy with the clipboard checking reservations are dead giveaways. The theme may be Mexican, but the action is pure Hollywood.

When the Spanish Kitchen opened, everybody I know was jazzed about the possibility of a serious Mexican restaurant. Sorry to say, this isn't it. The intentions may have been the best, but the result seems particularly wrongheaded. What arrives on the plate is Mexican-themed cooking with all the excesses of California cuisine. Neither emerges a winner. While many of the ingredients are authentic, and chef Hugo Molina has researched the recipes, somehow few dishes have the true taste of Mexico.

Take the margaritas. The restaurant goes to the trouble of using Herredura Silver tequila and Cointreau. I can live with the fact that they're very sweet, but these taste as if they're from a mix. There's no snap of real lime at a time when Mexican limes are everywhere.

The tortillas are perplexing too. How can a restaurant with any pretensions to being serious about Mexican food serve tortillas as leathery as these? It's a small detail but a telling one.

The menu is quite large and unwieldy, which may be part of the problem. A handful of dishes are better than others. Sopa de media luna -- half black bean soup, half tortilla soup, garnished with avocado and Mexican crema -- has a nice dose of heat. The black beans are tasty enough that I wonder why Molina hasn't included them on the plates instead of insipid white beans. It's an odd judgment call.

The Aztec penchant for chocolate comes out in a cocoa crepe stuffed with lobster and Manchego cheese in a soupy lake of tequila lobster cream sauce. An empanada-shaped quesadilla stuffed with huitlacoche (corn fungus) and Manchego may be the best appetizer, though. It is made with frozen huitlacoche and not the canned stuff so many restaurants use, and it comes in a mild guajillo chile sauce.

Next best choice is a tamale, either stuffed with duck or a green corn masa version filled with a mix of roasted vegetables. These are both simple and satisfying. But forget about the dull crab enchilada: An enchilada is a beautiful thing and not well served by tasteless lump crab meat and more of that lobster cream sauce. This dish must be there only because it sounds fancy.

The cooking at the Spanish Kitchen is more show than substance. It's worth remembering that Molina cooked at Parkway Grill in Pasadena for years and his Mexican food is very much influenced by that overwrought style. Nothing is allowed to be natural. Every ingredient's flavor gets muddled in sauce and garnishes. The squirt bottle brigade is out in force scribbling all over the plates. One night almost every dish arrives with a purple pansy on top and everything swimming in sauce. Everything, that is, except the chicken mole, which wasn't and should have been. Instead of a small piece of chicken in a sea of mole, you get a dried-out chicken breast napped with a little bit of sauce. The rest of the plate is taken up with Spanish rice and those white beans. Where's the improvement? Four of six dishes come with these soupy white beans, carrots sliced on the diagonal and a few string beans, as if the kitchen is operating on automatic pilot.

*

Less would be more

Among the platos grandes, the best dish by far is the barbecued marinated pork roasted in banana leaves until it is falling-apart tender. This is one thing that's not deluged with sauce, unlike the grilled rack of lamb -- in yet another red chile sauce. Don't get me wrong. I love chiles and all the wonderful Mexican salsas made from them. These just don't taste vibrant and alive.

Even the desserts offer little comfort: a rubbery flan is one of the worst I've had. It's garnished with canned mandarin orange slices, kiwi, fat unripe blackberries and a strawberry sauce. The chocolate crepe stuffed with white chocolate mousse is decorated by squirt bottles of sauce gone amok. Better to order the fresh fruit sorbet. At least you get a hollowed-out frozen orange filled with an orange sorbet and, oh yes, more of that winter-bland fruit.

Small wonder the bar scene, where tables of young people lay on the margaritas, dominates the restaurant. The Spanish Kitchen may be a swell place for a drink and an appetizer or two, but sad to say it's not the Mexican restaurant of anybody's dreams.

*

The Spanish Kitchen

Rating: Satisfactory

Location: 826 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 659-4794.

Ambience: Kitschy hacienda-style restaurant with yards of wrought iron, colorful Mexican tile and a bevy of waitresses with red roses tucked behind their ears. Lively bar scene where the margaritas and the sangria flow is the main attraction, but high-decibel sound level puts a damper on conversation.

Service: Doggedly pleasant for the most part.

Price: Appetizers, $7 to $13; main courses, $17 to $35; desserts, $7 to $9.

Best dishes: Quesadilla with huitlacoche, cream of squash blossom soup, black bean and tortilla soup, vegetarian tamale, barbecued pork in banana leaf.

Wine list: Ranges from Spain and Portugal to Mexico, Chile and Argentina. Corkage $25.

Best table: Hard to say; a corner table at the back may be quieter.

Details: Open from 6 p.m. to about 11:30 p.m. daily. Full bar. Valet parking $5.

Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.

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