The Bistro Garden at Coldwater sure makes an impression. One friend of mine thought that it was the most beautiful restaurant she had ever dined in. Her husband felt uncomfortable there, as if he had just been sprayed with Obsession at I. Magnin.
I'm lowering my voice an octave to say this, but I tend to the first opinion.
The main dining room is an enormous, European-style winter garden, complete with beautiful cream-colored French doors, a brick tile floor and a scattered grove of light-strung trees, many of which soar almost 25 feet toward a spectacular green latticework ceiling. The elegant tablecloths, topped with fresh azaleas in little vases, are as pink as the walls.
There's another room and you also get flowers in it, but they're painted on the ceiling. This smaller room has a cozy fireplace and lots of warmth and a tendency to be less crowded. One of my guests insisted on eating here, mostly to be out of range of a rather flamboyant cocktail pianist in the Garden Room.
Kurt Niklas, who owns the original Bistro Garden in Beverly Hills, has brought much of his menu over the hill with him. And that's just about how I'd describe many of these dishes--Continental standards that neither excite nor offend.
It didn't help matters that we got one of the snootier Frenchmen on the premises to take our order. He actually corrected one of my guests' pronunciation of escargots de Bourgogne and when we asked him to recommend something, he just shrugged.
We managed just fine on our own, thank you. The grilled pesto shrimp appetizer we finally chose turned out to be quite wonderful, despite a notable absence of pesto. The dish consists of three plump shrimp in a delicate red pepper coulis , with any traces of an alleged pesto marinade blackened away on a grill.
My date ordered salmon tartar, a tasty, finely minced version heavy on the capers. They're big on tradition here--the tartar comes with old-time toast points, flavorless triangles of white bread arranged in a cloth napkin. A member of my party observed that toast points are the last refuge of white bread in polite society.
There are many other ways to begin a meal here, of course. The Caesar salad is fresh and crisp enough, but a creamy, anchovy-poor dressing makes it eminently forgettable. The spinach salad with rounds of goat cheese is better, but the oily vinaigrette dressing is awfully one-dimensional.
You might like the French onion soup, a rich, beefy version with a beautifully crisped cheese-topped crouton, or the BG's signature soup, hearty lentil with franks. I recommend the light, refreshing gazpacho as a sensible first course because the main dishes are really substantial; no nouvelle esprit de corps at the Bistro Garden. Steamed pig's knuckle, the only German dish on the menu, is probably the best thing to eat here--if you have the appetite for it. The knuckle is enormous, a smoky, fall-off-the-bone hunk of meat served with sauerkraut and a pool of creamy mashed potatoes. The sauerkraut, incidentally, is terrific. It has been soaked to reduce its sourness and tastes almost sweet.
Don't be ashamed to eat lamb here either. It comes grilled in small slices, fanned out atop a small potato rosti with a rich rosemary sauce. A special of pasta puttanesca, however, turned out to be a rather salty dish of linguine with olives, capers and too many anchovies (maybe they were making up for the Caesar salad). My date had grilled swordfish with herb butter, a thinly cut filet grilled to proper doneness in the middle of an assortment of baby vegetables. There's not much to say.
That's often the case with dishes here. Cooking can be quite nondescript. You end up hungry for more of a statement.
Don't expect one from dessert. They are pretty proud of their chocolate souffle, but the dish is so hot that it becomes little more than an overcooked omelet by the time you are able to eat it. The house cheesecake is a little more appealing but, frankly, Jerry's Famous Deli down the street makes a much better one. And the house special dessert, coupe Bistro, is pears, raspberries and vanilla ice cream. You wouldn't need a cooking class to make it yourself.
Oh, well, beauty is only skin deep, or so they say. Hey, there's a statement.
Suggested dishes: grilled pesto shrimp, $13.25; French onion soup, $4.75; steamed pig's knuckle, $19; grilled lamb loin with rosemary, $22.50.
The Bistro Garden at Coldwater, 12950 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 501-0202. Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, dinner 6 to 11 p.m. daily. Full bar. Valet parking in rear. All major cards. Dinner for two, food only, $60-$90.