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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Thumbs Down on Down Under Restaurant in Studio City

July 22, 1988|MICHELLE HUNEVEN

Before I called to make reservations at the new Golden Kiwi Kafe, I'd always considered the idea of Australian and New Zealand cuisine something of an oxymoron: a Down-Under, lamb-infested version of British cooking at its most boiled, overcooked, fatty and tasteless.

Cuisine from a country that gave us frozen lamb and those rubbery, green-lipped mussels? Cuisine from a continent where, I've been told, food is just a beer chaser? "The best meal I had in New Zealand," says a colleague, "was on the plane over."

Nevertheless, in one phone call, the Golden Kiwi's owner banishes these preconceptions; he describes luscious lamb dishes, a squab and crawfish pie, and a seductive choice of seafood. The walnut-fed venison, he promises, is far superior to any venison previously available in the United States.

I say, "Put me down for two at 8," and decide to bring a date.

The Golden Kiwi Kafe has moved into the space previously occupied by another, albeit distant, Empire affiliate, the Curry Center. The divider between the dining room and bar area still sports cut-out ogee arches which, along with the potted palms, airy white walls, and the waiters' tropical sport shirts, add a faintly exotic ambiance.

Bouquets of lilies grace each table. Black and white photographs of koala bears, trout streams and Sydney locate us firmly in the Southern Hemisphere, as do the accents of our fellow diners, a small, casual crowd in which Aussies and "Kiwis" predominate.

The bar features Australian wines and beers--there's even Australian mineral water--and, judging from the dishes and prices on the menu, we're certainly not in beer-chasing territory. By appearances, the Golden Kiwi is a casually elegant, upscale Down Under eatery.

Our problem is, we can't get waited on. It's a Saturday night; the restaurant's bustling but nowhere near full; there seems to be plenty of staff, yet after half an hour all we've received is a basket of slightly stale sourdough rolls. Luckily, my date and I have only known each other a short time, and haven't finished telling each other our life stories. When the waiter does arrive, he apologizes vigorously, blames the lapse on general confusion, and otherwise does nothing to reassure us that we'll be well taken care of here. But it's a new restaurant. . . .

"I'll start with the smoked salmon and prawn terrine," I say, and pause as he writes.

"OK," he says. "And for your main?"

"My main? Main what?" I stutter. "My main dish? You mean my entree?"

"Entree, main course--same thing, only they're called mains in Australia, and we have to call them that so that when a reviewer comes in, we'll sound authentic."

We all share a good laugh. At this point, authenticity is the farthest thing from my mind. I just want something to eat.

After another long wait, I get what I want, starting with the terrine, which tastes like ground shrimp and salmon, a kind of bland seafood Spam, certainly edible, but in no way memorable--except that it will prove to be one of the Golden Kiwi's best dishes.

The much-touted venison is livery, and though promised rare, arrives thoroughly cooked; despite all those metabolized walnuts, it's not as tasty as most of the venison, both wild and farm-raised, I've eaten. The rack of lamb also is not rare, as ordered; although tender, it's stunningly bland. The "yabbie and squab pie," crayfish and squab baked in a floury gravy under filo dough, has an appallingly murky taste.

The night's homemade papaya ice cream is a grainy, syrupy, unsweetened concoction priced at $4.25. The Pavlova, we're told, is the traditional dessert of both New Zealand and Australia; it's three slices of kiwi, a wedge of thin, tough meringue and a clump of barely sweet whipped cream. If the homemade ice cream made me want to run to Thrifty's for a 50-cent cone, the Pavlova made me want to airship apple pie and chocolate chip cookies to the sweet-deprived countries.

Always an optimist, I think it's possible that we'd hit the Golden Kiwi on a bad night. My date is not so hopeful. Although he let it be known that he'd go out with me again, he made it clear it would never be to the Golden Kiwi.

So on my first return visit, I enlist the company of my best friend and take care not to prejudice her in any way, good or bad. She arrives wearing khaki shorts and a pink sport shirt. "Oh it's pretty in here," she says. "I expected it to be like Croc II, a boisterous, throw-another-lobster-on-the-barbie kind of place. But this is nice. I should've worn white linen." She looks around. "Not that it matters." At 7:30 on a Tuesday night, we're the only customers.

We split a bowl of pumpkin soup, and it's good! And it turns out to be the Golden Kiwi's other good dish. The sourdough rolls are stale again. The lamb appetizer is a bland satay, the pistachio chicken, which the waiter tells me is a favorite, is cubed, not-crispy chicken in a vaguely Oriental cornstarch sauce, with a few whole pistachios thrown in.

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