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GALE-FORCE GLAMOUR : What's an Alluring Little Restaurant Doing in Beverly Hills' Car-Dealer Territory?

March 08, 1992|Charles Perry

Some rooms strive for glamour, some have glamour thrust upon them. Cafe Gale seems to have wandered onstage absent-mindedly swathed to the ears in chinchilla.

That may be just deja vu --the building was once a fur shop--but the place does have a glow. Up among the beams of the rather high ceiling, silvery air ducts gleam, and metallic poles descend bearing lamps like polished Art Deco fruits. The walls on two sides are windows two stories tall, made up of a selection of glass-brick styles along the bottom and subtly etched glass on top.

To add the right note of insouciant indulgence, the other two walls are lined with brightly lit cases displaying a collection of antique model trucks--the kind 3-year-old boys could push around--dating from the '20s and '30s and doubtless worth two or three fortunes. Altogether, this room gives you the sneaky, enjoyable feeling that you're getting away with something in fine style.

But there are two odd things about Cafe Gale. One is the location--the corner of Gale Drive and Wilshire Boulevard, in car-dealer-and-office-building territory at the eastern reaches of Beverly Hills, a place of virtually no pedestrian traffic. It's hard to be glamorous without an audience, and Cafe Gale, small and clubby, glistens strangely so far off the beaten track.

The other oddity is the menu. The chef, Shigeru Usuki, formerly worked at Symphonie, the wonderful French-Japanese restaurant in Torrance (itself a bit off the beaten track). Cafe Gale's dishes also carry faint French-Japanese overtones, mostly a matter of miso sauces and exotic mushrooms, and aim to strike a balance between sophistication and diner food. (The place is open all day, starting from breakfast, as if crossing Symphonie with its erstwhile Hawthorne Boulevard neighbor, Ed Debevic's.) But it's hard to detect a style here. The daily specials, for instance, are likely to be less adventuresome (e.g., steak, mozzarella marinara) than the regular menu--the reverse of what usually happens in a kitchen with a creative chef, where specials are an opportunity to stretch out.

The menu does well in the appetizer department. Dynamite Chinese dumplings--boiled pork won tons with pretty ruffled edges--are launched in a tangy tangerine sauce. The Japanese eggplant salad is pretty good, too--a couple of peeled eggplants topped with green onion in a mild, milky dressing. And the Peking duck salad stands out for the nutty aroma of the skin, the sweetness of the flesh and an admirably austere sweet-sour sauce.

The herb-chicken pate consists of a slice from a solid mass of white meat veined with herbs. The dish is not much like a real pate, but it's tasty, with a subtle green mustard sauce. Whitefish fajita is on the oily side, but it does come with a peppery tomatillo sauce (only two tortillas, though, not nearly enough). And the fried calamari served in a potato basket, though a generous serving, are just a shred on the chewy side.

The entrees don't succeed as well. Roasted half-chicken is probably the best, with a sweet miso-butter sauce that tastes almost like butter and maple syrup (talk about getting away with things--breakfast flavors at dinner!). The grilled salmon comes with a nice but rather slovenly hash of mushrooms and onions. Things go downhill from here.

"Jus Jus" (pronounced juju ) rib-eye steak comes on an old-fashioned sizzling platter, meaning that this thin and slightly chewy steak is fairly greasy. The ginger sauce--meaty rather than maple-y, in this instance--has a pleasant tang, but the grilled new potatoes on the side must have been boiled before they were thrown on the grill. I can't figure any other way to get that combination of mushy texture and burnt skin.

Grills such as rack of lamb and veal loin are standard-issue, but not the creamy crab croquettes. They resemble miniature, soft footballs with two sauces: something like marinara and something like bearnaise, except with chunks of boiled egg among the tarragon. Maybe this is a bearnaise for the age of salmonella anxiety.

The cube of lasagna (called spinach lasagna, but the spinach merely flecks the thick cheese filling) has the squishiness of the crab croquettes, but it comes surrounded by a mountain range of very fresh tomato sauce, spiked with the occasional coriander seed or bit of red pepper. Likewise, a ratatouille surpasses the grilled sea bass with scallops that it accompanies. The seafood itself is regrettably dry and overdone.

The dessert menu takes some interpreting. When it lists warm bread pudding, you should understand that it means a sort of creme brulee with bread and melting chocolate at the bottom. It's hard to condone this shameful appeal to our lower natures, but I've never seen anybody leave a bite.

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