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DAVID NELSON ON RESTAURANTS

Tableside Cooking Specialty in Mission Hills : New Cafe Often Falls Short on Delivery

October 10, 1985|DAVID NELSON

Local restaurateurs seem to be returning to the honorable practice of bestowing their own names upon their establishments.

Richard's, Jilly's and Chez Pierre are among the recently opened restaurants that take their names from their proprietors. What is heartening about this trend is that the name signifies that a real person is offering a promise of quality, just as Henry Ford did when he put his name on the Model T. The name also indicates that the place is the product of a personal philosophy of food service, rather than a corporate mass-marketing approach; when one dines at the apocryphal "Joe's," one expects to get food prepared the way Joe believes it should be cooked.

At the new Cafe Robert in Mission Hills, the cooking presumably reflects the tastes of proprietor Robert Rood. And he seems to have rather grand tastes; so many dishes call for tableside preparation, for example, that Rood employs one server whom he calls his "tableside specialist." While none of the dishes goes outside the bounds of traditional French cafe fare, Rood is not afraid to tackle a difficult specialty or two, as in the case of his mock turtle soup; sometimes it is real turtle soup rather than mock.

This is a most unusual restaurant. It seems powered by a very personal sense of style that is somewhat, and perhaps purposefully, out of step with the times. Tableside cookery, for example, largely has gone out of style, but Rood has chosen it as the heart and soul of his menu. He and his assistant also wear formal evening attire, a costume discarded by most contemporary restaurants, and one that is not particularly justified by the modest furnishings and decor. There is, in short, an emphasis on the sort of showiness that once was important but now is rather passe.

Cafe Robert may be long on flair, but it is often short on delivery. Tableside cooking, performed properly, attempts less to impress the diner with the skill of the server than to deliver a perfectly assembled dish. The Caesar salad ritual here is choreographed with an almost Ziegfeldian attention to movement; the process takes about 10 minutes, during which time the waiter even coddles an egg (the classic recipe calls for a one-minute egg) by dousing it with a stream of hot water poured from a small teapot. The dressing then is lovingly mixed step by step, as first garlic is mashed in the bowl, and then anchovy filets, the egg, olive oil, Worcestershire sauce, Parmesan cheese and other ingredients are added. The lemon halves are even wrapped in a napkin before being squeezed, so that no seeds may escape into the dressing. Finally, carefully torn leaves of Romaine are placed in the bowl and turned until well-coated with the mixture.

It was an impressive performance, but not an impressive salad, because Cafe Robert emphasized razzle-dazzle at the expense of quality ingredients. The Parmesan cheese, for example, was spooned from a bowl of powdery, commercial-looking granules, rather than freshly grated (the difference in taste is enormous, and if you can coddle an egg at the table, you surely can grate a bit of cheese). The croutons that garnished the salad were spooned from a bowl that had been set on the cart before the guests entered the restaurant and were quite stale. The salad was not the treat it might have been, a major disappointment at $4.95 per person.

No shortcuts were taken with the turtle soup, however, which was made with real turtle (a very hard-to-obtain item), and which, according to Rood, took 14 hours to prepare. It tasted as if it had been allowed so leisurely a simmer; the flavors were nicely melded, with the acidity of tomato and the aromatic qualities of carrot and onion serving to intensify the savory qualities of the meat. A shot of sherry was added at the table; this is a traditional last-minute gesture and a welcome one.

This soup, when available, would be the first course of choice at Cafe Robert. The list of starter offerings also includes vichysoisse and French onion soup, snails, pate (purchased from an outside supplier) and black Yugoslavian caviar, which is served in an impressive portion but is unfortunately mounded upon toast, a messy and unattractive presentation.

The menu lists but six entrees, none of them very complicated. The simplest and lightest probably is either the shrimp in garlic butter or the broiled snapper filet in lemon butter, while the seafood au gratin doubtless ranks as the richest. In this preparation, creamed shrimp and scallops hide beneath a fragrant cloak of melted Gruyere cheese; it is a tasty dish, but one could justifiably wish that it contained more than three shrimp and three scallops.

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