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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Excellence Costs Little at Il Mito

December 07, 1990|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When it comes to his craft, Michael Fekr is a dedicated young man. Despite an upbringing quite unrelated to Italian cooking (Fekr is Iranian-born), he manages to cook for an entire dining room almost single-handedly. And he does it well.

You have only to watch him working at Il Mito, his snazzy new Studio City trattoria , to discern this. Fekr is the one working double time behind the counter in his open kitchen--the man with the razor-sharp widow's peak and the long braided ponytail.

He's so dedicated, in fact, that he even has an Italian girlfriend. Her name is Graziela, and they met while he was cooking at Locanda. Graziela is maitre d' at Il Mito; she takes reservations (which are essential) and handles seating.

Il Mito has a deceptively simple visual style that appeals to its hip crowd. The long concrete bar has been stained, Buster Brown-style, with shoe polish. Unusual lanterns resembling a school of confused sea urchins hang above the tables.

The chest-high kitchen counter is made of fluted, lacquered wood, sort of like a roll-top desk on its side. Then there is the parquetry wall, made of shiny, diamond-shaped pieces of stained wood that look as if they were pulled up from a punk dance floor.

The food is also deceptively simple--more complex and subtle than it seems at first. Fekr honed his skills at one of Los Angeles' best Italian restaurants, Locanda Veneta, where he worked with Antonio Tommasi. And his food does recall Tommasi's style.

He has a wonderful eye for color, and uses the palette provided by nature exuberantly--he especially loves the colors of basil, radicchio and tomatoes. He is also a near-genius with sauces: rich reductions made from meat juices with an abundance of minced herbs such as mint and rosemary. No wonder customers are beating down the door.

The menu is small, but decisions still come with difficulty. Insalate del gladiatore is hearts of romaine with anchovies and a parmesan dressing, sort of an Italian-style Caesar. But if you're really lucky, they'll be offering on the night's special the same salad with radicchio, in which the bittersweetness of the leaves is more perfectly offset by the dressing's salty tang. This salad is a master stroke, the best thing I've tasted at this restaurant.

I've been considerably less impressed with insalate di pomodori , a basically appealing combination of vine tomatoes, cannelini beans, sweet onions, fresh oregano, aged vinegar and a fine green olive oil. Alas, those tomatoes were mushy.

But everyone is just about knocked out by zuppa della riccessa , Fekr's fine, thick, Tuscan-style lentil soup. Even the vegetarian I brought to dinner was impressed. "I suspect there was a ham hock in this stock," she said between mouthfuls. "But if that's true, I don't want to know about it."

We had less luck with the pastas. Penne al terremoto --short tube pasta in a spicy, tomato-based sauce with crushed olives--could have been terrific. But someone burned the garlic, turning it acrid. Linguine del mare turned out strangely bland, despite the fresh, chewy noodles. And what of the risotto saporito of arborio rice, porcini and lentils? Well, very tasty, but the lentils give the dish a gruel-like texture that it could do without.

As for meat dishes, they are practically beyond reproach. Pollo libertino is the only one you might fault. The boneless free-range chicken crisped on the grill in a grain mustard sauce is completely delicious but just a tad too salty.

Lombatona di vitello , a dictionary-thick veal chop, is a real killer. The veal is blanketed in a brown garlic and rosemary sauce, and about as tender as it gets. Even better is costolette di agnello , a rack of lamb--four double chops--in a delicate mint sauce. Not only is this one of the best lamb racks in town, it is also, at $15, just about the cheapest.

The prices are all so reasonable that I wonder how Fekr does it. None of the pastas is more than $8.50, and the antipasti are even less. Add a team of polished, enthusiastic servers and a couple of good desserts (such as a crusty pear tart and a smooth vanilla pudding with caramel sauce), and you have one of the best new restaurants in this area at any price. Now there's a concept that inspires real dedication.

Recommended dishes: insalate del gladiatore , $5; zuppa della riccessa , $3; costolette di agnello, $15; vanilla custard with caramel sauce, $3.50.

Il Mito, 11801 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 762-1818. Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, dinner 6 to 10:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Full bar. Valet parking. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $25 to $40.

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