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An Update On Those Neighborhood Places

April 06, 1986|RUTH REICHL

Los Angeles has three new restaurants that couldn't care less what I think of them. Unless you happen to live in the neighborhood, your opinion doesn't concern them either. They don't aim to please anybody who has to come across town to sit at their tables, for these restaurants are simply trying to provide good food at reasonable prices for people who live nearby.

But this is not the neighborhood restaurant you remember, that sweet but shabby place where Mom manned the stove and Pop handed out the menus. This is a brand-new Los Angeles invention, an updated version of an old-fashioned institution.

This new place is nobody's frump; it is invariably dressed to kill, (usually in pale pastels). Coziness is not a consideration: patrons are more likely to shout than whisper. And the cooking here is hardly homey; the new neighborhood menu offers everything from carpaccio to Cajun popcorn. But although the new neighborhood restaurant may try to look like Spago, sound like Chianti Cucina and taste like Trumps, it is always easy on the pocketbook.

Cafe Cordiale, American Sampler and Partners and Company have a lot in common. Their menus tend to be similar. So, in fact, do their prices. They even look a little bit alike. But despite all this, what is different about these restaurants is more important than what is the same. For like any old neighborhood restaurant, the most striking feature of the new one is the degree to which it reflects its location.

Cafe Cordiale, 14015 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 789-1985. Open for lunch, Monday-Friday, for dinner Monday-Saturday. MC, Visa, American Express. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$40.

"I'm not trying to buy a car or anything," says the valet at Cafe Cordiale, opening the door and tugging on his bow tie simultaneously. "I'm just trying to make enough money to get a surfboard."

All the people who work here look like they'd rather be surfing. But they don't take it out on you; the waitresses at Cafe Cordiale are remarkably pleasant. "Tonight's special salad," says the earnest young woman who first waits on me, "is radicchio with spinach and apples and chicken and Caerphilly, (that's like cheddar.)" She actually remembers all of this, doesn't even look at a piece of paper. Then she takes a deep breath, smiles brightly and adds, "It's delicious. I've tasted it. The flavors all blend really, really nicely."

She's tasted the chicken curry, too, and she thinks it's swell. (Personally, I'm less impressed, although I like the price--$6.50-- a lot). And I certainly don't like the vegetables that are perched on the side of the plate; they taste as if somebody forgot to cook them. (Current fashion to the contrary, crispness does have its limitations.)

There is a lot to like about Cafe Cordiale, besides the service. The place is certainly pretty, all soft pastels, pink and blue neon, tasteful prints on the walls. There are decent wines by the glass, and the prices are extremely reasonable. The menu looks appealing. Unfortunately, it looks a lot better than it tastes.

The best of the appetizers is the shrimp cocktail, which does not say much for the chef. The fried dumplings, which actually require some skill, are fairly awful: won ton skins are stuffed with poorly seasoned meat and deep-fried. Pizzas aren't very impressive either, despite trendy toppings like chicken and sun-dried tomatoes.

Salads, on the other hand, tend to be decent, and I have no real quarrel with the pasta, although I wish they'd cook the seafood that tops it a little bit less. And most of the fish (broiled swordfish, sauteed salmon, sole) and meats (veal piccata, marinated lamb), would have been better if they had not spent so much time playing with fire.

But desserts will leave you with a good taste in your mouth. There's a chocolate mousse concoction, embellished with whipped cream and raspberries and ladyfingers, that is irresistible. There are all sorts of pies and puddings and ice creams and cheesecakes, which the waitresses love to describe in mouthwatering detail. "Ooh," said one waitress as she put down the plates, "aren't our desserts wonderful?"

American Sampler, 5722 Melrose Ave., Hollywood, (213) 461-5775. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, for dinner Monday-Saturday. American Express. No beer or wine yet. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$50.

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Even if the desserts at American Sampler were wonderful, (which they aren't), it is hard to imagine that anybody who worked here would be so uncool as to say so.

This is the first trendy restaurant in the neighborhood, the not yet gentrified eastern edge of Hollywood. The decor is self-consciously arty, (blowups of Andy Warhol photographs look down on the diners), and you have the sense that the people who run this modern outpost feel like pioneers in uncharted territory, scouts who have forged bravely ahead to spread the Gospel of Food.

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