The differences between hot and cool restaurants have been well-explored: At a hot restaurant, as at an amusement park, you plug yourself into a prearranged scenario; at a cool one, more involving, you determine your own role within the context of the restaurant environment.
There is a third category, the "warm" restaurant, which exists mostly outside intensely urbanized areas and hardly at all in L.A. A warm restaurant nurtures you, feeds you the unthreatening comfort foods you crave, understands home-style cooking as it used to be interpreted in the sort of educated upper-middle-class households where Mom, like as not, subscribed to Gourmet and watched Julia Child on TV.
Warm restaurants use lots of fresh herbs but hardly any radicchio, lots of fresh-baked bread but no fancy pastry. Mendocino's Cafe Beaujolais is probably the archetypal warm restaurant, specializing in scrambled eggs and perfect pancakes and roast leg of lamb stuffed with rosemary. In Los Angeles, Mary's Lamb is the warmest restaurant I know.
When you walk by the deli counter and into Mary's Lamb, you might feel as if you had somehow stumbled into the best place in a tiny college town, a small restaurant frequented by the local Volvo-driving banker, married faculty members and grad students on their best behavior.
The storefront dining room is paneled with unvarnished knotty pine and, on the walls are hung spartan, lovely quilts, unobtrusively track-lit. Over a lintel, a burlap bag of coffee beans sits as permanent decoration; to the left of it, an antiqued-glass "Gourmet Foods" sign swings gently from the ceiling. A Mexican busboy rushes past with a ceramic cow and coffee cups the size of his head. (Distinguished-looking men in gray pinstripes feel as silly as children when they pour milk from a cow.)
Mary's Lamb feeds you very well, even before you order a thing. Crisp, poppy-seed-studded papadum, the salty, paper-thin crackers indigenous to India, are brought out with a small ramekin of liver pate or garlicky, spreadable cheese. You tuck into that, and they bring a basket covered with a flowered napkin and containing whole-wheat cheese cannonballs and wonderful beaten biscuits; butter and good berry preserves are put alongside the pate. You might think it foolish to fill up on biscuits and jam before dinner; you probably haven't given these biscuits a try.
Soups are the sorts of things Bon Appetit gives recipes for in its winter entertaining menus: too-thick tomato soup, at least half whipping cream by volume, is flavored with vast amounts of fresh thyme; chicken rice soup is as darkly rich as gumbo and nearly as assertively spiced.
Though the Xeroxed dinner menu changes daily--according to the whim of the chef--meat loaf and pot pie, the Dynamic Duo of comfort food, are always in evidence (though often sold out--you can reserve your portion when you make your reservation).
The softball-size haunch of meat loaf is terrifically oniony and forcefully spiced--the best food in the place!--and comes with calculatedly lumpy mashed potatoes and a nice tomato glaze. Soothing, bland, deep-dish chicken pot pie is crowned with a high, golden crust (break it and inhale the fragrant steam) and surrounded by a heap of equally bland Caesar salad. Ask for the very good garden salad instead.
Another staple comfort food, roast Cornish hen with corn bread-sage stuffing, gave little comfort one night: The little bird came out nearly raw. I sent it back and it returned, nearly half an hour later, still bleeding red at the bone. I contented myself with picking at the sugary stuffing (could they buy their corn bread at Marie Callender's?) and swiping bites of my friend's excellent roast tri-tip, first dragging them through the mustardy gravy on her plate. Crime does occasionally pay.
The kitchen here is good with dinner party food, which makes sense because Mary's Lamb began as a catering firm. A cliched-sounding dish was sensational, chicken breast coated with Cajun spices (mostly cayenne), grilled until crusty and served over a bed of jalapeno-flavored noodles. I especially liked a big piece of flounder that was grilled and then topped with meaty sauteed shiitake mushrooms, and also baked trout filets overlaid with sun-dried mushrooms and fresh herbs.
Unfortunately, the various cakes and cookies offered for dessert have mostly been sitting around the take-out counter all day and get pretty stale by the end of the evening. Maybe if you ask nicely, somebody will fresh-bake you one of the delicious sour-cream coffee cakes that are the best thing about the breakfast menu here. It's served warm.
Mary's Lamb, 13624 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks (818) 501-7700. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday, Sunday brunch. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Beer and wine. Parking in rear. Dinner for two, food only, $28-45; brunch for two about $18. Dinner reservations necessary.