"Blackened calf's liver," says the menu. Blackened liver--why, that was one of my grandmother's specialties! And here it is at the glamorous new Brown Derby in Hollywood! Suddenly everything is crystal-clear. The avant-garde technique of blackening was destined, by its own complex inner logic, to lead us back to the beginning, back to the most traditional of home-cooked chow (on the other hand, I admit Grandmother didn't serve her overdone liver under a sort of Mexican table salsa sweetened with mango chutney).
Whoa, maybe I'm going too far. After all, this is a Brown Derby we're talking about here, and the Brown Derby restaurants have always been glamour rooms, as the new location at Hollywood and Vine is today: sparkling and gold-toned, thronged at lunch by well-dressed, high-powered types who schmooze and dine under wall-size banks of celebrity portraits. The Brown Derbies are definitely fancy.
But come to think of it, there was always something about the Derbies that smacked of home cooking too. I do believe that when the first Derby opened 61 years ago, its menu was hamburgers, hot dogs, fried cheese sandwiches and chili. Later on when Hollywood was feeling fancier the Derbies added Continental dishes, but after all, Continental cuisine is closer to American home cooking than French.
And the Derbies have always served things like "toast Hawaii": a fried ham and cheese sandwich with pineapple slices in it. It would seem grotesque to a French chef (or most California chefs these days) but there's a certain home-fried logic to it: ham goes with cheese, pineapple goes with ham. The Brown Derby menu may mention a lot of kiwi and radicchio and black bean sauce, but the inspirations still tend to have more in common with toast Hawaii than anything you find at Spago.
Sometimes these ideas are surprisingly good, like the baked avocado (avocado turns out to be pretty good baked) with veal and mushrooms in a mild goat cheese sauce. Aged New York steak in a bit of hoisin sauce with some sweet shaved horseradish on top is a treat. An appetizer of good German apple and veal sausage with a very substantial quesadilla and an interesting sweet plum-flavored salsa holds together, if just barely. The curse of this kind of food, though, is a tendency to vagueness. Everything on the plate sort of runs together in a warm, rich mishmash. For instance, the sand dabs in mustard horseradish butter manage to taste neither of the fish nor the sauce.
Now, I have a sneaking taste for this goofy sort of food, a feeling with a lot of nostalgia in it. I must warn you, though, you can't always take what's written on the Derby's menu literally. The "piccata of Napa lamb" is supposed to come with "wild green pepper jelly" but to me it tastes a whole lot like gravy flavored with mint jelly. The escargots on a bed of spinach--which I ordered just because of the macabre thought of seeing the snails served on their own potential dinner--was supposed to come with Pernod/Port Salut sauce, but I'll swear it was sauce madeira; yes, snails, walnut meats and spinach in a meat-stock sauce flavored with madeira wine. It was actually pretty good with the spinach and the walnuts, though a very curious thing to do to a snail.
There are rather good pastries from the cart--very tart lemon pie, the Derby's famous grapefruit cake (light and clean tasting, with an old-fashioned cream cheese frosting), chocolate mousse with a layer of cheesecake on top. The star dessert, though, is misleadingly called chocolate dipped strawberries. The strawberries are there, but mostly it's something like the Austrian pastry called hispanisches Windtorte, a shell of meringue filled with ice cream and whipped cream. Now, that's fancy.
The Brown Derby, 1707 N. Vine St., Hollywood. (213) 469-5151. Open for lunch and dinner daily; Sunday brunch. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $32 - $68.