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A Deli for All Reasons--and Some of Them Are Better Than Others

June 25, 1989|CHARLES PERRY

Look at this mustard. It's practically white. What's going on?

I'm in Westwood Village, that village of mighty office buildings, first-run movie theaters and a major university, at a place called the Village Deli. There's a yearning about the place. It wants to be something: perhaps a deli for all these villagers, perhaps the ultimate California deli, perhaps even the Deli of the Future.

The results seem odd. For instance, the Village Deli likes to think of itself as having classic New York-style decor, though there are big California picture windows, not to mention the potted plants, particularly in the second-story outdoor dining patio. This is also a deli that features a happy hour and total sports coverage and feels destined to become "the hottest place in town for upscale young singles and couples."

A deli as the hottest place in town? It could happen. The demographics of Westwood seem stacked against it, though. At lunchtime, it does get power-dressers from the nearby office buildings, and even seems reasonably deli-like in some ways. At least some of the lunchtime waitresses know enough about deli tradition to address everyone as "sweetheart."

However, from what I've been able to see, dinner time is when the upscale young singles and couples are not coming. It's when the UCLA students are coming, and the people who've come into Westwood to catch the movies, for instance at the major theater right across the street. This impression might be based on coincidence, or if it's the case, it might change. However, even the waitresses seem younger and more collegiate at night, and I've seen the large and well-stocked bar stand empty for hours on a Saturday night.

Back to that pale mustard. I guess what happens is that under Westwood's cheerful skies, the sunlight just bleaches the color out because when you stick in a spoon and stir it around--hold on, this isn't deli mustard. It's ordinary American hot dog mustard. And come to think of it, the horseradish sauce is delicious, but by some miracle, it's not the slightest bit hot.

Let's have another look at that menu. There are overstuffed deli sandwiches, and at dinner, there are deli-type entrees such as stuffed cabbage. But there are also bacon and Cheddar potato skins, and quiche, and tostadas. Meanwhile, of all things, there are no Dr. Brown's sodas, not even a New York Seltzer. The mind reels.

At least the sandwiches are good ones, overstuffed and not excessively humped up in the middle to make them look bigger than they are. The corned beef is perhaps a little better than the pastrami, and the brisket is not terribly lean, which is as it should be. I don't care what anybody says: Brisket is the part of the cow that would be bacon if it were in a pig; lean brisket is not brisket.

The deli-type dinners that you can only order in the evening are plain and hearty home-style dishes, but the kishka was a puzzle to the UCLA students I took. In effect, it's a sausage with a stuffing so heavily breaded that there isn't any meat at all, served with a little bowl of very thick chicken gravy. Trying it may have added to their sophistication, but sophistication might not even be enough for somebody to appreciate kishka ; it may be one of those dishes you have to have grown up on to go for at all.

The Hungarian goulash is a beef stew with lots of onions and red cabbage in it, I suspect, which is why it's a bit sweet; very nice too. The old-fashioned beef stew is, I'm glad to say, not so old-fashioned as to have overdone vegetables, but there is a curious starchiness about it. The pot roast with potato pancakes (not the most character-filled potato pancakes I've ever had; the words "Aunt Jemima" actually crossed my mind) comes with what tastes a lot like chicken gravy.

Maybe the best of the dinners is the chicken with barbecue sauce. It's not a barbecued chicken, mind you; it seems to be boiled (which means it's not dried out, of course), and it has a pretty interesting barbecue sauce, rather like an Oriental sweet and sour sauce, and very good.

Another good thing is cold beet borscht, which is always available no matter what the soup of the day is. Of course, so is the "famous gumbo," better described as a thick chicken-vegetable soup.

I'm down to dessert now: pretty good mocha cake and a strawberry shortcake made with thick slices of yellow cake, pretty ordinary ice cream. Is this it? Is this the Deli of the Future? The thought is wearying.

Suggested: borscht, $1.95; chicken dinner, $11.75; Hungarian goulash, $12.25; mocha cake, $2.25.

The Village Deli Restaurant and Bar, 10936 Lindbrook Drive, Westwood. (213) 208- 3772. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Full bar. Street parking. American Express and MasterCard accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $15 to $46.

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