“Was everything terrific as always?” asked the host as my friends and I left Reservoir in Silver Lake. What kind of question is that? Talk about putting you on the spot. I wanted to put a bag over my head and sneak out without answering.
What could I say but that we had a wonderful time. And we did. Despite the food, I could have said. But I didn’t. I didn’t have the heart. And also, because I’m always hoping that the next time I go to a restaurant, the food will be better. Or at least different.
At Reservoir, the menu hardly budges from week to week, even though the season moves right along at the farmers markets. Actually, last week the waiter did bring up two specials, one of which was an heirloom tomato salad. Not exactly original, but something new at least, for which I was grateful. On a warm night, it tasted awfully good. Or rather, the tomatoes would have without the drizzle of balsamic vinegar. Its caramel sweetness only makes the tomatoes taste less ripe.
The arugula salad is better, with bracing oro blanco grapefruit, velvety avocado and toasted pine nuts in a citrus vinaigrette that has some spunk.
But then there’s the roasted beet salad, which tries to stand out from the crowd by piling on the ingredients -- not just blood orange, which would make the salad sing all on its own, but throwing in blue cheese. Stop. Fennel. Stop. Toasted hazelnuts. Stop. And mint. Period. In the end, it’s hard to slog your way through this salad because there are so many competing flavors.
I wanted to love Reservoir. I really did. The funky little bungalow on Silver Lake Boulevard (it was formerly Netty’s) sat empty and forlorn as the neighborhood changed around it, until Gloria Felix, opening chef at Blair’s and a veteran of the kitchens at AOC, Lucques and Grace, started working on it.
Construction proceeded in fits and starts and then mysteriously stopped altogether for months, putting the little bungalow into limbo again as Felix struggled to put together the funds she needed. In the end, she took a job as Gordon Ramsay’s sous chef on his television series “Hell’s Kitchen.”
But there was a happy ending: Three months ago, she and partner Darren Roberts, a lifer in the restaurant business who did much of the construction himself, managed to get Reservoir up and running. Everybody in the neighborhood had been following its progress for so long that Reservoir was mobbed from Day One.
It’s a charming building, a California bungalow with a bank of windows on one side, just above the banquettes. With the windows thrown open, the small dining room has a wonderful, intimate feeling. Just 42 seats, including eight at the bar.
Quarters are close, and when you get a crowd bent on having fun, the noise level can be punishing inside, which is why, if you want to talk, you might want to wait for a table outside on the porch. Note: To make use of every table, Reservoir doesn’t take reservations. It may not be convenient, but you usually don’t have to wait long, except at prime hours on weekends.
Hanging outside, sipping a glass of wine from the seriously short, seriously boring list -- on second thought, make that a beer -- you might run into friends who live in the neighborhood or someone you passed that afternoon on a walk around the Silver Lake Reservoir, which gives the restaurant its name. This is the chance to complain about the glaring electronic billboard across the street or imagine how Edward Hopper would have painted the corner 7-Eleven. Down the street, waiters are setting up a sidewalk table at the new Domenico’s, and the highly caffeinated are walking at a brisk pace away from LA Mill coffee boutique.
In fact, everything is right about Reservoir except the food. You’d think that after trying to put this restaurant together for so long the chef would have come up with something better than this. She has a small menu. Fine. So do Canelé and any number of neighborhood restaurants. But she doesn’t change it! Hardly ever.
Since the kitchen isn’t strong enough to make this a destination restaurant, Reservoir has to rely on a strictly local crowd. And how are you going to get people to keep coming back if the menu doesn’t propose something new from week to week?
OK, if every dish were absolutely riveting, maybe. I’d go back again and again to have the peel ‘n’ eat shrimp at Hungry Cat or the avocado cocktail at Musso & Frank or the duck confit at Rivera. But nothing on this menu comes close.
The pizzas are truly oddball -- fairly small, with a bready crust and very tomato-y sauce. Margherita is just plain dull, and this from someone who trained with Peppe Miele at Antica Pizzeria in Marina del Rey. I kind of like the play of the spicy pork chorizo with the quince on one pie, but I can’t quite get over the crust. It’s more like focaccia than pizza.
If the burger were great, I’d be back just for that, but the bun is squishy and sweet and the meat doesn’t have that much flavor. And please, does everybody have to be doing the slimy caramelized onion and blue cheese thing à la Father’s Office?
Main courses are listed separately from the accompaniments, which you can mix and match. The best main course is a grilled skirt steak, sliced thick and covered in a bright-tasting emerald chimichurri sauce. The braised beef short ribs are very nice too, with just a hint of sweetness from a pomegranate glaze.
But in most cases, I ended up enjoying the accompaniments more than the main element, though they’d all show better if Felix edited down the number of ingredients. In the end, the food is all mushed together, steak sitting on top of braised kale and roasted tomatoes with fingerling potatoes and baby yams. Chicken is served with the Parmesan polenta (which is very good) and roasted balsamic cippollini onions. But does the same plate also need to be mucked up with sautéed shiitake mushrooms and fresh peas? It begins to seem like baby food for adults.
Dessert, though not exactly photo-ready, is a step up from the main courses and should satisfy an aching sweet tooth. I favor the ice creams, the horchata that comes with the individual apple tarte tatin, and the slightly bitter and intriguing Guinness that comes with the chocolate plate. In fact, if you want just one dessert to share, go with the chocolate plate, which includes a small cup of hot chocolate, a molten lava cake, a milk chocolate pot de crème, some chocolate bark and more.
I think I’m going to give this one some time before I go back. Maybe a whole season to see whether Felix comes up with more ideas. From someone who worked in such good kitchens, I expect more -- more ideas, more polished cooking, more soul. But then it’s a whole lot easier cooking someone else’s menu than coming up with your own. There’s a learning curve, and this one seems to be particularly steep.
ReservoirRATING: 1/2 * LOCATION 1700 Silver Lake Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 662-8655, www.silverlakereservoir.com.AMBIENCE Cozy Silver Lake bungalow with a bank of windows over the banquette, just 42 seats inside and a handful of tables on the porch out front. The crowd is local. The food is casual California cooking from chef Gloria Felix (ex-Blair’s and AOC -- and Gordon Ramsay’s sous chef on “Hell’s Kitchen”).SERVICE Willing and eager.PRICE Appetizers and salads, $10 to $14; main courses, $16 to $32; dessert, $8 to $12.BEST DISHES Arugula and oro blanco salad with avocado, skirt steak with chimichurri, braised beef short ribs with pomegranate reduction glaze, Guinness ice cream, chocolate plate.WINE LIST Very limited. Corkage fee, $15.BEST TABLE One on the porch in front, where it’s quieter.DETAILS Open 6 to 10:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays. Beer and wine. 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.