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A Small Cafe Grows Up And Goes To Town

October 20, 1985|RUTH REICHL

City Restaurant, 180 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 938-2155. Open for lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday, for dinner only on Sunday. American Express, Visa and MasterCard accepted. Full bar. Valet parking. Dinner for two (food only), $40-$60.

When Terry Takeda wandered into the City Cafe a few years ago, he found more than a meal--he found a second home. He took to dropping in for dinner two or three times a week, and then he started bringing wine along to send into the kitchen. An advertising man with a fine cellar, he went so far as to set set up wine tastings for the staff.

He was not alone. Many people felt proprietary about the minuscule restaurant on Melrose, and they felt enormous pride as chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken began to be recognized among the foremost talents in the country. These fans found it amazing that such good food came out of such a small kitchen, and early this year you could hear it being whispered around the room that the women were finally going to get a kitchen worthy of their talents.

A few of these old customers even decided to join the family and invest in the new venture. "I was delighted to become a part of it," Takeda said. "First, they asked if I wanted to be an investor and then they wondered if I wanted to take charge of the wine list." These days, Takeda strolls proudly through the new restaurant, looking possessively around him.

FOR THE RECORD - IMPERFECTIONS In her review of City Restaurant Oct. 20, Ruth Reichl credited architect Josh Schweitzer but failed to mention his partner, David Keller.
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 27, 1985 Home Edition Calendar Page 95 Calendar Desk Type of Material: Correction

But many former customers are less than thrilled with the way things have turned out.

"I've been waiting and waiting for the new restaurant to open," one of them remarked to his wife, "but it's just not the same." The restaurant had only been open for two days, but he looked around the vast new space and heaved an audible sigh.

The City Cafe was cozy and intimate; it had 40 seats. The City Restaurant is three times that size, and architect Josh Schweitzer has opted to emphasize the difference. The former carpet warehouse is undivided, and the high ceiling seems to make the walls stretch up forever. No attempt has been made to soften the space in this no-frills decor, or to make it more friendly.

There is no carpet, no art, no plants, no flowers. Even the innovative use of TV accentuates how much bigger this place is than the old one: You used to have to go through the kitchen to the bathroom; now the only way to see the kitchen is via closed-circuit TV. The sole decorative touches are the splashy colors of the plates and serving carts, the bright-red chairs, the gorgeous light that comes in through the single, huge window, and the dramatic wall angles. "Here I am," the room seems to announce, "take me or leave me."

As for me, I'll take it. The room strikes me as an absolutely appropriate background for the food. While other chefs are straining to make "statements," trying to stamp their signatures across each dish that comes from their kitchens, Feniger and Milliken are serving supremely straightforward food. Other chefs attempt to be creative, to personalize their food; these two women are almost radical in their traditionalism.

The chefs are among the best-trained in the country: They went to chef's schools, did their requisite time in the great kitchens of France, met while they were working in one of America's finest restaurants. In addition, they have studied the cuisines of other cultures: Feniger makes pilgrimages to the kitchens of India, and Milliken goes to Thailand. They've spent time in Mexico. Most modern U.S. chefs are busy creating hybrid concoctions--California-Chinese, Franco-Japanese, French-Tex-Mex; Feniger and Milliken learn what they can and leave the food alone.

One night, they served the best Indian dish I've ever eaten in Los Angeles: breast of chicken wrapped in its own skin, coated with black and gold mustard seeds, quickly cooked in the tandoori oven they built into the kitchen and served with a bowl of spicy coconut broth and a seductively buttery dal . (The naan served with it left a little to be desired.)

Their Thai melon salad tastes more like the food I ate in Bangkok than anything I've ever been served in this country, the balance of flavors absolutely perfect. Nobody does a better job with homely bourgeois French food like lamb tongue vinaigrette (the sort of food you'd find in any country bistro) or confit of duck. They do great Mediterranean dishes--a spectacular lamb shank or beautiful roasted red peppers stuffed with feta cheese. The City gnocchi put most Italian restaurants to shame; they are so light they simply vaporize in your mouth.

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