You're going to the World?" asked my friend's new wife. "I lost a hairdresser to that place."
How Santa Monica, I thought: Even beauty yields to cuisine. Carole Woolley, the hair- stylist-turned-restaurant-co-owner, now spends her days welcoming the young and the restless to the World.
The place certainly has a suitable style for Santa Monica's Main Street--casual beachiness and a certain raffish, artsy quality. At one end of the dining room, a huge canvas dappled in luminous shades of blue looks like the sky as seen from underwater--the snorkler's-eye view. Meanwhile, West African fetishes squat behind tables, and a wobbly red panel snakes around the ceiling. Here's a peacock statue; there's a twisted length of pipe. Murals that look like Chumash cave paintings cover the black walls, and patterns that resemble madhouse doodles are etched into the cement floor. The place has the dashing, faintly edgy feel of a '60s coffeehouse.
The food has a shaggy, eclectic quality, chef and co-owner David Teck's trademark ever since the '70s, when he ran a place in Tarzana called the Ginger House. Russian, Caribbean and Thai ideas crawl around the menu among pizzas and curried shrimp.
Take the hot, spicy shrimp in mango spinach. Don't expect a new vegetable called mango spinach but rather a spinach salad topped with mango chunks, pine nuts and large, steaming-hot shrimp. It comes in a delicious sauce--maybe too delicious; its loud flavor upstages the rest of the dish.
At the other end of the spectrum fall two variations on the potato-pancake notion. One, made from the Latin American root yuca and accompanied by sour cream and applesauce mildly spiced with green peppercorns, tastes somewhat sweeter and blander than a real potato pancake. The other happens to look like a hideous plateful of blackened hamburgers, but in their rugged way these "spinach pancakes" topped with sour cream and black caviar work far better than the yuca model.
Tropical madness also finds its way into the entrees. Spicy coconut shrimp is a lavish eyeful: rice mixed with shrimp, mango chunks and mildly hot, fried green peppers, with a sweet coconut sauce adding charm to the crunchy-fresh shrimp. In the African shrimp saute, however, we descend to sub-divine madness: banana, pineapple and shrimp curry, a jumble of flavors and textures.
Altogether, this kitchen does a lot better when it restrains the exoticism. The irresistible chicken drummettes, for instance, with their honey-lime-and-red-pepper dipping sauce, are practically a by-the-book Thai appetizer. While the spinach linguine with curried shrimp and papaya comes off simple-minded and a bit harsh, the pasta with chicken and cilantro pesto has a delicate, satiny texture. Raw cilantro and red-pepper flakes give it drama.
The pizzas belong to the semi-thick-crust school, puffy and bready but not bulky, and feature vivid toppings. The mini-pizza taste-o-rama provides three warm, soft, aromatic samples: one topped with cheese and tomato, another with cheese, tomato, onion and bell pepper, and the third with goat cheese, pesto and pine nuts.
The best of the entrees has to be the pounded chicken breast. It's really our old Italian friend paillard , the meat pounded thin, grilled and served with a tangy pesto sauce. The World recognizes it as a hit and places it among the three dinner entrees also served at lunch and brunch, meals that otherwise lean toward the more customary sandwiches and breakfast dishes.
Those other all-day entrees don't compare with the pounded chicken breast. The tender pounded steak comes smothered in onions that have been slightly blackened, adding a faint but unfortunate bitter note to the really luscious meat-glaze sauce. There's plenty of that sauce, anyway; you can easily sop the pigtail fries in meat sauce and still have some left on the plate when you've eaten the last fry.
The third of the all-day entrees is the citrus-marinated roasted chicken. I have to credit beef-avoiders for its place on the menu--or maybe just people who like their chicken fairly dry.
The rich meat glaze on the pounded steak shows up on a few more entrees. On the sauteed beef tenderloin in homemade herb vodka, it's a meaty sauce with a hint of tomato, rather like a classic sauce espagnole . A quite similar sauce--identified as "balsamic vinegar and rosemary sauce," though the vinegar quotient must be pretty small--covers the roasted lamb loin; you can scarcely taste the lamb.
Seafood often shows up on the daily specials, but the only fish on the regular menu is a blackened salmon. Blackening may not seem exactly what salmon cries out for; on the other hand, the cilantro-tomatillo sauce works surprisingly well with this thick salmon steak. I've also had, on special, a smashing soft-shell crab in a fragile, flaky breading with both sour cream and ginger soy on the side.
For dessert, you can always get the tulipe , a tostada-like almond cup with raspberry sorbet and coconut and chocolate ice creams (all refreshingly under-sweetened). The fruit cobbler is the genuine item, topped with old-fashioned biscuit dough. The World's patrons seem to favor the chocolate-macadamia-nut tart-- warm and moist and dauntingly rich, a little like a slightly underdone Toll House cookie. Apparently, exoticism is all well and good in appetizers and main courses, but at dessert, the World wants comfort food.
World Cafe, 2820 Main St., Santa Monica; (213) 392-1661. Dinner served nightly except Monday; lunch served Tuesday through Friday, and brunch served Saturday and Sunday. Full bar. American Express, Visa and MasterCard accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $42-$74.