Gourmet Gourmet reminds one of that children's story "The Little Engine That Could." Like the tiny locomotive, the restaurant seems to be trying very hard to succeed. Perhaps it's this sincere effort that makes you want to overlook some of the place's shortcomings.
The restaurant's casual decor and open kitchen create a pleasant first impression. So does David, the Friday and Saturday night maitre d', although I couldn't help smiling when first led to our table by someone I thought was about 12 years old. (I found out later he's 16.) Only occasionally does he slip out of his efficient, businesslike character--for instance when he takes a running slide across the floor. If you are in the right mood, it is a refreshing touch.
The restaurant has two rooms, one adjoining the kitchen with a wood planked floor, the other carpeted and more quiet. Both are light and airy with blue-and-white cafe curtains.
Waiters seem sincere and very interested in whether the food is to your satisfaction. On one visit, when we found the pizza crust soggy, our waiter apologized and immediately offered a complimentary dessert. We assured him it wasn't necessary, but an unordered and generous slice of banana rum torte (one of their specialties) arrived packaged for takeout along with the check.
We accepted reluctantly, but promised to heat it briefly as instructed before serving. I'm glad he insisted--what appeared to be a heavy dessert turned out surprisingly light and quite delicious.
Both lunch and dinner menus feature a selection of four cold appetizers and three types of pizza: vegetable, basil and onion; wild forest mushroom, Italian sausage and rosemary; marinated shrimp, sun dried tomatoes and broccoli. The hot appetizers and pasta include Brie in puff pastry, carrot fettuccine and tortellini. Two soups and several salads are also available.
The lunch menu has an appetizing selection of sandwiches, omelets and four entrees. Dinner entrees include catfish rolled in pecans and sauteed; a hunter-style chicken sauteed in white wine with shallots, mushrooms, tarragon and tomatoes with herb stuffing; prime New York steak with cracked black peppercorns and flamed with brandy, and a veal chop with apples, chestnuts, cream, Benedictine and brandy. All are served with Caesar salad, baby vegetables, potatoes and French bread.
Chef Joe Donohue also has created Pritikin-style appetizers, soup and entrees. No oil, butter, eggs or salt are used. Selections include fresh snapper Vera Cruz, stuffed breast of chicken, salmon in parchment, stir-fried steak and peppers and cold seafood.
The warm French epis served at both lunch and dinner are delicious--crusty on the outside, soft inside. Wines sold by the glass seemed well chosen and were generously poured.
In the children's story, the tiny engine is trying to pull a heavy load up a big hill and keeps saying "I think I can, I think I can." Gourmet Gourmet also carries a big load--not only is this a full service restaurant, but takeout and catering services are also offered. One suspects these extra services are economically advantageous for the owners, but unfortunately the restaurant customer sometimes gets shortchanged because of them.
Daily specials were dispensed with during a holiday season visit when the catering business was requiring more attention. According to our waiter, the heavy catering schedule was also responsible for the soggy pizza already mentioned. Still, I came to enjoy a meal, not suffer because the staff is overextended.
The same overtaxing of personnel may also account for reservations not always being taken correctly and service that certainly is leisurely, at times actually slow. On at least one occasion this caused friction among patrons vying for the waiter's attention.
The menu shows imagination, but not everything comes up to expectations. Italian sun-dried tomato bisque sounded mouthwatering, but was found lacking in flavor. Carrot fettuccine with smoked salmon, cream and green onions had plenty of flavor, but some tasters felt the sauce was too thick.
At the end of the story, the little locomotive finally makes it up over the hill and proves that belief in oneself and lots of effort pays off. After being open for just eight months, Gourmet Gourmet is showing those same traits and a lot of promise.
Gourmet Gourmet, 19014 Ventura Blvd. (Windsor Center), Tarzana, (818) 344-7111. Lunch, Monday through Saturday, from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Lot parking. Reservations recommended. Dinner entrees from $8.50 to $18.50.