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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Sawtelle Rustic: Ishi or Isn't He?

November 29, 1990|JONATHAN GOLD

For a while in the early '80s, I and most of my friends did a great deal of our serious eating at the tiny Japanese-French restaurant called Ishi's Grill, which was in that odd tangle of streets popularly known as the Bermuda Triangle, a couple miles west of Downtown. At first, Ishi's was that hungry man's dream, a lunch counter that served haute French cuisine at close to coffeeshop prices. The artist community adopted the restaurant. Later Ishi's became more of a regular restaurant, if an odd one--it looked like the kind of place the Jetsons might visit on a romantic evening out--and it remained the eccentrics' favorite Japanese-French place in town.

Ishi's was the restaurant where a lot of people learned how to use sesame oil in a vinaigrette, how to arrange a salad to look like a Zen garden, and just how good slightly undercooked chicken could taste sparked with a bit of ginger. I remember the shock of spooning up a bit of what I thought was split-pea soup and tasting the clean, strong bite of fresh peas, overlaid with the briny scent of mussels. I suppose Ishi's was my standard spot for a second date: someplace romantic.

When Ishi's closed four or five years ago, a lot of us tried hard to discover where its gifted chef, Masayuki Ishikawa, had moved his pots and pans. There were rumors of a big restaurant in the Valley, undone by brutal city building inspectors before it had a chance to open, and I think Ishikawa was supposed to develop the trans-Pacific menu at Noa Noa before that Beverly Hills restaurant hired Orange County hotel chefs instead. While he was away, styles in L.A. cooking changed, and where small mounds of food on great big plates had been hip, rustic cooking became the norm, and places that had previously served a lot of scallops in buerre blanc started serving a lot of scallops in tomato sauce instead.

Which bring us to Sawtelle Kitchen, Ishikawa's new restaurant.

A smallish place up the street from the strip malls and office buildings of the Sawtelle-Olympic corridor, Sawtelle Kitchen is tastefully rustic right down to the patinaed walls and the weathered hutches that hold the bowls for cafe au lait . The tables are covered with sheets of copper and little fiaschi hold homemade chile-flavored olive oil. The restaurant is identified from the street only by a tiny sign painted on the window in discreet Art Nouveau lettering. Recorded torch songs play softly. Customers are allowed to bring their own wine--like Ishi's, the restaurant has no alcohol license--and on a typical Wednesday night many of California's better Chardonnay vineyards are represented, along with trendy red varieties from the Rhone. There is no more charming restaurant in West Los Angeles.

But where Ishikawa's cuisine worked beautifully at Ishi's--Japanese cooking and nouvelle cuisine have, after all, lightness, rigor, and the importance of presentation in common--his take on rustic cooking is a bit weird. The world may not be ready for Japanese-Provencal-Italian cuisine.

The salads are pretty much the old Ishi toss of greens, though the dressings are spiked now with exotic rustic things like lavender and balsamic vinegar. He's solved the pizza problem by using flour tortillas instead of crust, two of them glued together with a layer of melted cheese, and topped with delicious things such as proscuitto and mushrooms, duck sausage, or a modified puttanesca made with anchovies, capers and sliced hard-boiled eggs. They're pretty good in spite of themselves, much better than they were when the restaurant opened last spring; crisp and light and easy to eat.

Many entrees are a different matter. Where at most new-rustic places you might expect something called bistecca to at least resemble the terrific grilled T-bones that go by that name in Florence and Siena, Ishikawa's version is a tough, thin rib-eye steak served a la pizzaiola , in an acrid, over-reduced tomato sauce dotted here and there with lumps of melted fontina cheese. A beautiful, crisp-skinned roast chicken was drowned in a salty brown sauce that obscured the flavor of the meat. A special of veal stew--topped with a rock-hard crown of puff-pastry--was overcooked and unpleasantly gamy, redeemed only by a few soft rounds of sweetly spiced veal sausage.

Sawtelle Kitchen seems to do best where it is closest to refined French cooking. Broiled Norwegian salmon, while nondescript, is served on a bed of al dente pasta sauced with a textbook-perfect buerre blanc ; sauteed sea bass, served with sort of a Tuscan-style ratatouille, is sweet and nicely undercooked. Soups have been wonderful, especially an intense carrot puree flavored with fresh clams.

And though you should at all costs avoid the clammy sweet-potato tart, Ishi's most famous dessert, coffee Jell-O topped with rich cappuccino ice cream, is as good as ever. I'm not sure how it is on a second date, though . . . maybe a third date: something exotic.

Sawtelle Kitchen, 2024 Sawtelle Blvd., West Los Angeles, (213) 445-9288. Open Monday-Thursday, 6-9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6-9:30 p.m. No alcohol; own wine OK. MasterCard, Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$40.

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