Imagine a Hamburger Hamlet gone all grown-up and nouvelle. Instead of the usual overstuffed red plastic decor, picture a kind of Southern-California-in-the-'80s look of weathered brick walls, terra cotta tile floors, sky-high ficus trees laced with sparkling lights, a world brought indoors, all airy and expensive and decorator-perfect, with a piano player serenading dinner guests.
And this place would have no more hamburgers, either (well, maybe some very expensive ones at lunch and during off hours), no more showboat tostadas or wedges of chocolate cake as big as houses, but a menu of such with-it fare as radicchio salad, marinated goat cheese, designer pizza and pasta, poached salmon "a la minute," at prices up there with the best of them.
With these changes, then, would this still be a Hamburger Hamlet? Well, yes and no. What it would be--and is--is the new Hamlet Gardens in Westwood, the latest and fanciest of Hamburger Hamlet Inc.'s chain of restaurants, a bid for L.A.'s upscale market and a possible prototype for more outlets like it.
The trouble is, the food I tried there just barely delivered for the money it cost. Like the gorgeous but impersonal decor, the cuisine was aggressively tasteful, but not always tasty, a sort of generic nouvelle that gave the sense not of someone creating in the kitchen, but of a cook simply putting nouvelle cuisine through its fresh-ingredients-simply-prepared paces.
Appetizers of "Very Fresh Salmon Tartar" served with toast points ($6.95) and shrimp in a mustard sauce garnished with jicama, oranges and pomegranate seeds ($8.95) sounded great on the menu, looked great on the plate, but tasted just plain bland. The gravlax marinated with dill and aquavit, however, was a nice, delicate dish, and the salads such as radicchio with shaved parmigiana ($6), and a garden salad of greens in a light vinaigrette, ($5) were fresh and delicious as could be, unless you've tasted the garden salad at Primi, which uses the best olive oil on the planet.
There was certainly no doubt about the freshness of the guacamole ($6.50). It was prepared right there at tableside--chopped onions and tomatoes, cilantro, jalapenos, et al., mashed right in view, quite a production. What tableside gimmick will they think of next? "Would Madame care for chopped celery in her tuna salad, hmmm?"
To be sure, meals at Hamlet Gardens (which I keep wanting to call Hamburger Gardens) were not without their pleasures and high points. Cocktails were generous, service was eager to please and one night, sauteed red and yellow peppers came with a clove of baked garlic so good it had me begging for another, which the waiter sweetly supplied. The pizza with pesto, prawns and sliced red onions ($12) was so good it alone deserves a return visit.
But the entrees themselves were less than exciting. Roasted chicken from the rotisserie could have been juicier; the grilled lavender fennel pepper steak was done in; the Wienerschnitzel, dull. Best were the Dover sole, grilled just this side of doneness, fresh and tender, and the French fries and fried onion rings (red onions again).
Things picked up considerably with dessert (shades of Hamburger Hamlet)--a wonderful hot fudge sundae topped with glazed sugar fried walnuts ($5.95) and a warm bread pudding baked with caramelized apples ($4.50) resting in a pool of creme Anglaise, both out of this world. Those desserts and a big hot steamy bowl of capuccino ($3.50) were some consolation for the flatness and disappointment of the meal, but not for the bill. I'd go there again for snacks and dessert, but not for the financial commitment of dinner.
Hamlet Gardens, 1139 Westwood Blvd., (213) 824-1818. Open Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-midnight. Closed Sunday. Dinner for two, food only, $50- $ 80. Full bar. All major credit cards accepted.