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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Turquoise Cafe Hasn't Mastered Border-Mex Genre

December 11, 1987|J.D. GOLD

There's no shortage of post-modern cafes on the Boulevard, the noisy kind with glass brick, track lighting and a menu that was hot in West Hollywood six months before the particular restaurant opened. I like to call them radicchio bunkers and, indeed, whether they serve Southwestern, New Wave Italian or bistro-French food, most examples of the breed look and feel exactly like architect-designed bomb shelters. Concrete is exposed. Ducts are bared.

Sharp-dressed guys and gals, fresh from their corporate Dien Bien Phus, nibble on cunning snack foods and commiserate loudly with one another over the beverage of the moment; lurid neon blares 'Welcome' outside. And on most plates is a leaf or two of the expensive, bitter cabbage we've all learned to tolerate if not actually enjoy.

When you walk into the brand-new Sherman Oaks bistro called Turquoise Cafe, you waltz around a big pillar and nearly into the arms of the host, who pretends not to notice--it must happen all the time. The place looks like your basic radicchio bunker, all gleaming surfaces and track lighting, discreet rock 'n' roll and clean lines, three male chefs--none of whom looks old enough to vote--cooking and laughing behind the chrome counter in the spotless open kitchen.

Because Turquoise serves a bowdlerized version of modern Southwestern food (which, as of Thursday, was still hip), there is, of course, no radicchio-- black beans are effective substitutes. The mandatory potted cactuses are strewn about, and large paintings, whose surfaces are oddly spackled to match the texture of the stuccoed walls on which they hang, depict Corona bottles and the usual adobe sorts of things. Actual bottles of Corona, necks stuffed with lime wedges, dot most occupied tables as if in homage.

You are seated at a banquette and immediately brought hot chips in a basket and a wonderful, mild salsa of fresh diced tomato. The black-bean soup is good, almost as good as the Platonic version served at San Francisco's Zuni Cafe, though less intricately spiced, and is served with little mounds of sour cream, minced onion, guacamole and that salsa. You squeeze in a few drops of lime juice, experimentally stir in dabs of each garnish, then give up and toss in everything but the guacamole, which you save for the chips.

The corn cakes are so tiny and cute that you momentarily forget you're paying $4.50 for what is essentially a nickel's worth of cornmeal baked into rounds of dryish corn bread spiked with a kernel or two of fresh corn and a pinch of minced chilies. The accompanying sour cream and astringent, coarse-chopped tomatillo salsa mix together nicely, but hide what little taste there is to the pricey "medallions of cornmeal."

Better are the medallions of creamy marinated goat cheese--the Brie of the '90s!--atop a swell (if you like okra) salad of grilled vegetables that taste, well, grilled. You might be less happy, though, with the too-sweet potato salad, which is cut into medallions and strewn around a huge, overdressed heap of lettuce that is exactly what you mean to avoid when you order, say, potato salad.

Southwestern restaurants should be able to turn out reasonable versions of the standard border-Mex repertoire. But how can one turn variations on a genre if one hasn't mastered the genre itself?

Turquoise's antojitos might as well be steam-table fare. Blue-corn enchiladas, the color of a bruise, are an incongruous sight once you scrape away the goopy topping, and they taste like every other enchilada you've had in your life; the Anaheim chilies used in the chilies rellenos, though nicely battered and fried, were unpeeled when I had them, as if the toughness of the peppers was supposed to be proof of their freshness.

Soft tacos were unspeakable: flour tortillas oversteamed until slimy, then rolled around in a mush of beef and cheese and salsa. If you try to eat the things as you would ordinary tacos, they split in midair and the filling plummets into your lap.

If you order grilled dishes, it is possible to eat quite well here. A New York steak is garnished with a juicy melange of diced, basil-marinated tomatoes and is accurately grilled; moist, grilled loin of pork has delicious bits of spicy, charred crust adhering to it and is accompanied by an interesting salsa of marinated black beans. Grilled tiger shrimp, in a cilantro-lime butter sauce laced with just enough chili to spark the sweet sea taste of the meat and the bitter tang of the charred shells, is sensational.

You wouldn't want to live in a bunker, but it's OK to eat in one from time to time.

Turquoise Cafe, 15025 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks (818) 995-6575. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner. (After Jan. 2, the restaurant will also be open Sundays.) Beer and wine. Parking in rear. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Lunch or dinner for two (food only) $15-$30.

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