There is a huge Norman Rockwell look-alike painting of a fight scene that socks it to you the moment you walk into the Downtown Grill in Encino.
You know right away you're going to like what you get.
This new link in the Hamburger Hamlet chain is as handsome as Marilyn Lewis, who is the artistic arm of the restaurants, could dream up.
Tiled, streamlined, with bare beams and innards exposed, done up in the fun colors of flamingo pink and black, it is something like a sophisticated New York grill, which is exactly what Lewis intended. A concept, in fact, somewhat missing in the Valley until now. The entry and row of huge windows face the pretty park across the street. An open hot kitchen (behind glass) and an open pantry are the latest in the trendy touches.
What's not to like? The restaurant is professional, miles and miles ahead of any restaurant with little or no experience; the key dishes on the menu--the hamburgers, pasta and pizza--have been honed over the decades at the older Hamlet restaurants. The menu has been designed to suit an upwardly mobile clientele whose eclectic, adventurous tastes require constant challenges.
Clever twists and turns in the menu provide those challenges with experimental appetizers (called tapas on the menu), such as duck sausage wrapped in grape leaves with Zinfandel sauce, Thai lamb with peppers and ginger, Spanish croquetas.
The experimentation is an encouraging sign for a restaurant company whose reputation rests on tried and true fare. I admire Lewis' courage to try new things without the safety valve of experience behind them. After all, these dishes are no less immune to the whims and wiles of failure than those found in any other new untried restaurant. Some--not all, of course--still need work.
I found, for instance, the Thai lamb, a spicy soupy stew served in a small dish, in need of an bready accompaniment--something to wrap it in. The croquetas, which look great and crispy outside, have centers that virtually drip. That needs work. The duck sausage wrapped in grape leaves is a wonderful idea, but the duck sausage is excessive in liver taste and crumbly texture. The terrific-sounding homemade whiskey fennel sausage on a roll served with spinach salad and feta cheese was also short on taste, texture and presentation. The sausage was rather smaller in scale than expected, on a roll too long for it. The hard sausage also calls for softer bread and a contrast of soft lettuces, not leathery spinach. The aggressive grainy mustard is better off with its natural companion--the soft, moist, French boudin, not hard, feisty Greek-style sausage.
But these discrepancies are bound to be corrected as time goes on. The chicken paillard on the other hand, was terrific. The chicken was moist, the flavor of wood from the wood-burning grill, outstanding. The dressings and sauces in all the dishes tried, including that of the smoked chicken salad with wild rice vinaigrette, were excellent--pure and well-balanced.
The restaurant offers guacamole served in a molcajete, the Mexican grinding stone, at the table. The pasta is served in bowls, as pasta is in Italy. The shoestring potatoes are crisp and light, the coffee is wonderful, the bread memorable. In fact, they should do Los Angeles diners a favor by sharing the recipe with fellow restaurateurs. Good bread, as anyone who dines out frequently in Los Angeles knows, is hard to find. There is a limited but fairly priced wine list, and the dessert menu is ridiculously tempting. Give the chocolate pecan pie a try. It's served cold, but ask to have it warmed--it's divine.
Downtown Grill, 16925 Ventura Blvd., Encino; (818) 986-6660. Open Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for lunch and 6 to 11 p.m. for dinner; open until midnight Friday and Saturday. Sunday opening expected starting May 5. Major credit cards accepted. Valet parking. Reservations accepted. Average entree $6.50 for lunch, $10.95 for dinner.