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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Twice-a-Day Test No Challenge for Eclectic Gilliland's

November 06, 1988|CHARLES PERRY

In our gleaming new restaurant-research labs, one of the most rigorous procedures is what we call the "bidiurnal," or twice a day, test. It asks whether you could eat lunch at a restaurant and then go right back for dinner the same day without minding a bit, not one tiny, statistically significant bit.

A surprising number of great restaurants fail it. In fact, a couple of them even fail the twice-a-month test. Their food may be wonderful, but it doesn't wear well. You need a recuperation period before you can face the experience again.

At the other end of the scale is Gilliland's. It's one of the highest bidiurnal scorers, because nothing about the place could ever be an ordeal. The rather plain rooms are relaxed and amiable; there are a couple of charming antique posters on the wall--just a couple, thank God--and the low-key rock and country sound track is extremely tasty.

Likewise the food, which is light and engaging and full of variety (well, quite a lot of variety, anyway; the menu does have a wild fondness for sweet peppers and goat cheese). It may be exquisitely prepared, but like the restaurant itself, it's above all relaxed and amiable, with nothing abrasive and scarcely anything dull. Eating at Gilliland's is rather like going for a walk with somebody who knows all the prettiest scenic views.

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I suppose you'd call it a California sort of place, but with an unusually large dose of eclecticism. Stuffed squash blossoms appear side by side with Indian \o7 samosas, \f7 Vietnamese dumplings, a particularly meaty Irish stew and a rather plain-sounding but curiously satisfying polenta with cheese. The stew, accompanied by a traditional dish of mashed potatoes flavored with green onions, is apparently made with one of those traditional Irish red wines.

Chicken breast comes stuffed with goat cheese, or grilled and served with excellent pumpkin and herb chutneys. Sweet, fresh salmon has a garnish of zucchini pancakes, which are more a slightly chewy texture than a flavor, covered as they are with sour cream and salsa.

Rack of lamb is sauced with rich meat glaze and a loud dose of garlic and fresh rosemary. On special one night they served slices of smoked pork tenderloin, very smoky and delicious, served on sauteed sweet peppers. For appetizers there are things like smoked salmon with wonderful dill sauce and little dollar-sized potato pancakes, or a rich tart filled with Irish cheese and onions.

The desserts tend to be revelatory. This is the only \o7 tarte tatin \f7 I've had in California where the apples were cooked until fully caramelized, as soft as custard and as richly flavored as raisins or prunes. A pear came poached in clove-scented red wine; it had an amazingly sensuous texture.

Lemon curd tart is the biggest dessert cliche in British Isles cookery, but here the lemon curd (a sort of lemony custard) is sharp and fresh rather than bottled, and the rich pastry is faintly crunchy with ground almonds.

For chocolate maniacs, there is an amazing blowout called chocolate boxes. They look like miniature chocolate shopping bags, filled with chocolate mousse with a handful of sliced strawberries peeking over the top.

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Lunch, a very reasonably priced meal, features some terrific sandwiches. Say, curried duck sausage with patties of goat cheese with lettuce and pickled red cabbage, or grilled chicken breast on French bread with peppers, avocado and thin-sliced fried eggplant. At lunch you can also get a platter of grilled vegetables, which may be the best thing Gilliland's serves. Say, carrots, yellow squash, Oriental eggplant and incredibly sweet and crunchy corn on the cob, roughly grilled with cilantro sauce and garlic mayonnaise.

Very little here fails to register on our restaurant-research equipment. True, though I finished my Vietnamese dumplings (I've never met a peanut butter sauce I didn't like), they could have had more textural variety. On the other hand, crab cake appetizer has a nice smooth texture but not a lot of crab flavor.

And I'm not quite sure what to think about the stuffed squash blossoms. With their spinach and cheese filling, they taste perfectly fine, and they are a triumph of deep-frying. It just seems strange to cover a squash blossom with corn meal and fry it into a smooth, crisp ovoid. I had to take one apart to assure myself that there was a squash blossom there.

At the restaurant-research labs, though, we do not consider this statistically significant. Not one tiny bit.

\o7 Gilliland's, 2424 Main St., Santa Monica. (213) 392-3901. Full bar. Metered street or lot parking. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Open Monday through Friday for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and for dinner from 6 to 11 p.m.; open from 5:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Dinner for two, food only, $40 to $55. Suggested dishes: blarney cheese and onion tart, $5; angel hair pasta with peppers and goat cheese, $11.95; rack of lamb with mustard herb coating, $15.95; pear poached in red wine, $4.50.\f7

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