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Tivoli--a Melancholy Danish Experience

March 08, 1985|DICK RORABACK | Times Staff Writer

Ah, Tivoli Garden. In the middle of (wonderful) Copenhagen, a fairyland of light, sound and taste--the latter the special province of a dozen sidewalk restaurants purveying 100 kinds of smorrebrod and a thousand beakers of lambent, frothing Carlsberg. If there is a more perfect spot on God's green footstool to spend an August evening, it's got to be a private club for seraphim.

And now, Tivoli Garden west, an Encino enterprise that is to the original as the County Museum of Art is to Coney Island. A shame, if not a satire, though the last act may yet be played.

TG (Encino) bills itself as "Danish Continental," which doesn't appear to mean much of anything. In keeping with the non sequitur, the main dining room is long, vaulted, mainly white, even elegant, with tapestry chairs, the requisite white linen, fresh flowers--the right stuff. "Danish Modern" one might almost think, if one hadn't visited the place in its previous incarnation: D'Jit Pochana. The room lent itself beautifully to Thai food too, which leads one to wonder which continent we're talking about here.

TG's cuisine gives a passing nod to Danish cooking, a nod as fleeting as four bars of Carl Nielsen in a two-hour Borge festival. Among appetizers are two herring plates that would make Scandia blush, and a gravlax, sliced table-side, that those seraphim--if they entertained the vaguest thought of violence--would kill for. (Cured in Akvavit, the salmon hiccups its way straight to the heart. If this be the cure, we'd like to try the disease!)

Beyond these minor homages to the homeland, chef-owner Bent Thomsen--a splendid Viking whose putative zest for adventure must have been misplaced in mid-Atlantic--lets down the side. Can you believe, in a Danish restaurant, osso bucco, poached Dover sole, veal scallopini, half-broiled chicken and "chopped sirloin steak" (at $12.50)?

Thomsen, it must be noted, does serve some nice things. That's the trouble: "nice." He is an excellent chef, a meticulous one, but perhaps he knows his audience too well. (Open only five or six weeks, Tivoli Garden is doing top-drawer business among the Valley's coat-and-tie set. "Why?" asked a diner recently. "It's not exactly adventurous." "It's a helluva lot more adventurous than Charlie Brown's," retorted his companion, who may have had a point.)

Thomsen, of course, was at Scandia for four years, then became chef at the Hillcrest Country Club, where he may have developed the decidedly un-Viking habit of never rocking the boat. Consider:

--A veal Pappagallo, somehow recommended by the captain, was a good chop, goaded into sapidity by thyme and circumstance. Still, a chop is a chop is a chop, even at the cost of a war bond ($18.75, kiddies).

--A pepper steak just sat there, neither peppery nor steak-y enough. (Is marbled beef truly on the endangered list?)

--The salmon maison was a major step up, simple but succulent (excitement doesn't necessarily spring from complication). Baked in foil with spinach, tomato and onions, the moist, fresh fish was drawn by its own sealed-in juices to the very essence of salmon. Marvelous.

--A sole, on the other hand, suffered an identity crisis. Served over wild rice and eggplant, it shared the stage with generous pieces of crabmeat and fried bananas. Each was cooked beautifully, but a question persisted. As mentor Lois Dwan would put it: Why?

There, then, is the puzzling picture, the primary enigma being: Why call the restaurant Danish at all? With pigs outnumbering people two to one, the Danes' most notable meals center about pork. Not a single pork dish on the Tivoli menu! Nor even a passing reference to the good garden's glorious open-faced smorrebrod . Nor a fruit soup, nor an apple puree, nor one thin leaf of red cabbage. Zabaglione on the dessert card, but nary a prune Danish in sight.

A nice, expensive continental restaurant, to be sure, but sort of the ultimate average as far as the genre goes.

Thomsen, as noted, is an obviously talented, if strangely subdued, chef. As his clientele grows, one hopes he will see fit to turn over a new Leif.

Meanwhile, Tivoli Garden indeed! Where's the mellow, the light, the amusing, the Scandinavian ?

For that matter, where's the pork?

Tivoli Garden, 15627 Ventura Blvd., Encino (818-905-6625); lunch Tuesday-Friday from 11:30 a.m., dinner Tuesday-Sunday from 5:30, Sunday brunch 11-2:30; valet parking. Dinner for two $40-$80, food only.

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