In the film "Baby Boom," Diane Keaton makes a killing marketing Country Baby applesauce. The TV spin-off could take place at Mary's Lamb, a country-baby kind of take-out shop/restaurant in beautiful downtown Sherman Oaks.
Ventura Boulevard is hardly the country, but there's blue gingham and raw wood and, best, masses of hands-on real food. Casting includes a real Mary, (and a Michael and a Terri--three friends who ran a catering business together before opening the Lamb six months ago)--but only an occasional serving of lamb.
In the pilot, (think "Alice's Restaurant" meets "Julia Child") a writer is sent to purchase take-out food and arrives unable to speak, having just come from the dentist. Owner Michael (who of course doesn't know the reason why this silent stranger is pointing) is more than kind. He goes through everything in the case and tells her the offerings change each day. (Mary tells her later that customers can order hot entrees from the restaurant and lots of regulars call in with "hey, what's on tonight?")
By nightfall, the Novocain had worn off and the writer and her friends worked their way from baked country ham to the chocolate Texas slab owner Terri refers to as "Joe."
The best dishes are a handsomely roasted cold beef salad with sweet yellow peppers, even sweeter tomatoes, really crunchy pea pods and a perfect gloss of garlic marinade ($7.95 per pound); big fat pieces of moist buttermilk-fried chicken coated with a thick peppery crust (better reheated than cold and $8.95 per pound), and a glorious, thick-sliced smoked ham jammed with black peppercorns.
Crunchy reed-thin asparagus is showered effectively with lemon; a chicken, artichoke and red pepper salad, punctuated by a twist of dark tarragon, is admirably refined. Big pillows of ravioli stuffed with cheese are coated with a fine, light pesto and generous helping of pine nuts.
Less impressive are two pasta dishes (in the $6-$8 per pound price range) and potatoes vinaigrette. The tricolored rotelle (with a couple of pieces of marinated broccoli thrown in) is nothing but a lackluster version of delicatessen macaroni salad. Fettuccine with grilled zucchini, eggplant and mushrooms looks murky and tastes dull. Punchy little red potatoes cloaked with grainy mustard and oil have no flavor at all.
Someone has told the writer that the "pies" (two high double-crusted quiche-like affairs at $4.95 a slice) are just fine served cold. One bite of the cold Italian sausage-spinach and artichoke-crab pies yields the verdict "cardboard-bland" and into the oven they go. The sausage-spinach pie is transformed: hot, (with melting ricotta and mozzarella inside) the buttery crust now crisp, it's just great. The crab-artichoke version doesn't make it even when cooked, with citric acid the top note.
The counter at Mary's Lamb is filled with baskets of home-baked things: superbly moist muffins, mouth-watering cookies and old fashioned triple-layer cakes set on pedestals. There's a majestic coffee brownie, a great coffeecake-like blueberry muffin, an exceptionally gonzo pumpkin raisin cake and that slab of chocolate, which the writer thought too sweet.
This is labor-intensive food, and it's not pizza take-out cheap. That wonderfully herbed fried chicken at $8.95 per pound may not be pricey for a couple of "DINKS," but it's getting up there for a family of five. (Cookies are $10.95 per pound.)
Still, Mary's Lamb has the ingredients for a long-running hit.
Mary's Lamb, 13624 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 501-7700. Open Tuesday-Friday for lunch: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Market (cold) selections: 3-6 p.m. Dinner: 6-10 p.m. Saturday: Brunch: 10 a.m.-3 p.m., Market: 3-6 p.m. Dinner: 6 - 10 p.m. Sunday: Brunch: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. All major credit cards. Parking in rear.