Mary's Lamb is a restaurant that puts us back in touch with the past. Both its design, modernized Pennsylvania Dutch, and its menu, mainly modernized Americana, achieve this without pretending to reproduce something long gone or pretending that times haven't changed.
At breakfast and lunch, natural light filters through the enormous white ash tree that dominates the restaurant's new home (its handsome storefront location in Sherman Oaks was recently abandoned in favor of this larger and even more inviting renovated cottage in Studio City) and brings to life the interior's pine beams, country quilts and beautifully stenciled plank floor.
Biscuits and gravy, one of the gummy horrors of American country cooking served in hundreds, maybe thousands, of roadside cafes and truck stops, here earns a respectable place on the American table. The biscuits are light, and the gravy, not thickened into a paste, is richly flavored with what is billed as homemade sausage.
Although this sausage works well broken up in the gravy, it is too crudely spiced and salty to be eaten alone; this is true of the restaurant's crab sausage too. On the other hand, a shrimp and asparagus omelet served with a light hollandaise sauce has a bright morning freshness to it.
In keeping with its name, the restaurant's lamb dishes are among its best. Large, flavorsome lamb medallions are served with a lively mint pesto, and there's a splendid rack of lamb with a good, herby bread crust and a mustard glaze.
The vegetables that come with the rack of lamb reveal another of the restaurant's strengths. Kale, baby bok choy and savoy cabbage are briefly grilled over an open fire--this infuses them with such warmth and flavor that they rival the meat for attention.
One of the more interesting dishes on the menu is the broiled Brie with French bread. Slices of the bread are spread with crushed garlic and fresh rosemary that, when heated, perfume the bread and cheese. An extreme contrast to this dish is shrimp in coconut-and-beer batter served with a strange yet appealing pineapple-chile dip. On one occasion the shrimp were hard and tasteless, but another time they were tender and moist--a welcome way to start a hearty meal.
Even familiar-sounding dishes such as meat loaf or marinated pork chops have an edge here. The double porks chops are so thick and juicy they seem more like a part of a roast--and taste as good as one.
But the best dish at Mary's Lamb is one of the simplest: what the menu calls "grill roasted" chicken. Its wonderful flavor, its complex yet direct herbing and its perfect crispness make it the equal of what is served in our very best restaurants.
Potatoes are done right here too. The garlic and black pepper flavored roasted new potatoes and the mashed potatoes, which seem to be just coarsely mashed potatoes and nothing more, are terrific.
Among the desserts are cookies lightly flavored with cinnamon, and a bread pudding with brandy sauce that is unexpectedly light and not too sweet.
Frankly, Mary's Lamb was a disappointment the first time I ate there. An American special--trout with a pecan-oatmeal crust--was terrible. The fish was soggy, and what was supposed to be the crust was gooey and slid off the fish.
Of course you might say that anyone who orders a dish that weird-sounding gets what he or she deserves. Not so. Recently I had a memorable catfish with pecan crust. I hope I'm right in thinking that once Mary's Lamb settles into its new location it will be among Los Angeles' best.
Mary's Lamb, 10829 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. (818) 505-6120. Open Monday through Friday for breakfast 7:30 a.m. to 11 a.m., lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 11 p.m. and Sunday 5 to 9 p.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Liquor license pending. American Express, MasterCard, Visa accepted. Valet parking. Dinner for two, food only, $35 to $60.
Recommended dishes: broiled Brie, $6.50; grill roasted chicken, $11.95; rack of lamb, $17.95, bread pudding, $3.95.