Any Mom who cooks the way they do at The Merchant of Venice would be the neighborhood hit.
The food is so homey, you can see Junior's fat cheeks glowing and growing and Papa smacking his lips, swearing to himself that this was one good woman he would never leave.
The same Mom might possibly be drummed out of most professional restaurant kitchens as unqualified for anything but preparation work, but who cares? What you get at Merchant is home cooking so appealing and so abundant that you would return. You will want to.
You'll return for the pure vintage American stuff, like the corn pudding, the applesauce that comes with the pan-fried pork chops and the cornbread-sausage stuffing that comes with the grilled herb chicken. Simply wonderful. A meat loaf with tomato sauce would have been great without the oyster mushrooms and without the fettuccine noodles on which the meat loaf is served. The fettuccine noodles are an accompaniment, used as a bed for dishes rather than a star attraction. In that respect they pass; otherwise not.
The vegetables, such as the carrot-pea combination that comes with most of the dishes, are ordinary but fresh and healthful.
There is a Cajun rib-eye steak that isn't exactly like the ones Cajuns usually make either, but it's a huge, chewy steak served with a good barbecue sauce and a great baked potato that comes with sour cream. No hunger pangs left there.
Oatmeal soup is one of the more unusual soups ever tasted and it's better than expected--spicy and hot with a touch of ginger. The chili, which is made with white beans, is one of the best I've had in a long, long time and one that would qualify it for the best chili of the year, as far as I am concerned.
If you like Buffalo chicken wings, the ones at Merchant are fairly good, with a light batter, fried in clean oil and served with a lightly vinegared sauce. Quite tasty.
The salads are large, usually served with the specials as a first course, and the honey-mustard, blue cheese and house French herb vinaigrette dressings are outstanding. We tried them all. We could say that the greens appeared rather tired--not crackling-crisp--but we would be quibbling.
A menu board filled with specials such as poached sea bass with basil butter, broiled trout with avocado butter, broiled swordfish with cilantro sauce, a chateaubriand for two, a rack of lamb with mint jelly for one, and stuffed Cornish game hen with wild rice, provides extra menu choices, if one feels the need for something different. The regular menu offers an ample selection at decent prices, including a braised brisket and hamburger beside the choices already mentioned.
For dessert we tried fresh peach cobbler, which we found a tad more appealing than the crusty bread pudding topped with cream. But who's complaining?
Merchant of Venice is a huge, rambling place that has a look of the Old West at the turn of the century. Wood floor, wood booths, vintage posters and potted ferns. The service on a slow day was quick and cordial. The tablecloths are country print with an overlay of white paper on which you can doodle with the crayons provided. The place is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast includes things like huevos rancheros, eggs and ham or bacon and such.
Merchant of Venice, 1349 Washington Blvd. , Los Angeles, (213) 396-3105. Open 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Major credit cards accepted. Free parking in rear. Reservations accepted. Private room for large parties available. Entrees from $4.95 to $13.95; specials to $16.95.