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RESTAURANT REVIEW : A Grill's Mixed Message : Pearls bills its style as 'light gourmet' but takes a heavy hand to meats and pasta as well as desserts.

August 21, 1992|MAX JACOBSON

Pearls: A California Grill is advertising a "light gourmet menu." Now what it needs is to lighten up.

The restaurant is located in an upscale hotel, the Warner Center Marriott, a modern building with a busy, noisy lobby. You'll find the entrance to Pearls next to a stuffed bear seated at an electronically programmed piano.

Inside the restaurant, though, it's almost deathly quiet. Service is hotel-school formal, and there's scarcely a sound apart from ditzy, piped-in jazz. California grills are supposed to be casual, like the scene out in the lobby, but this place is just about stuffy. I dined here in a sweat shirt, and the tuxedo-clad captain gave me a sneer.

The decor is also bound to throw you: '80s pastels, Southwestern pottery, brass railings, abundant plants, Oriental vases and native American objets d'art. Directly above a huge aquarium filled with tropical fish is the room's centerpiece, a billowy shroud of pink and blue taffeta that looks like something Christo threw away.

Things take a slight turn for the better as soon as you sink down in your cushy, carved wooden chair. A ceramic jar of interesting herbed bread sticks and puff pastry cheese straws is brought, and a waiter presents a menu that looks downright eccentric for a hotel dining room.

This is the real surprise. Pearls made the switch from Continental cuisine on June 1, and the new menu does take a few chances. Unfortunately, simple dishes such as seafood bisque and New York steak end up leaving the best impression, not the ostentatiously California dishes, such as roasted duck with marinated peppers, grapes and walnut vinaigrette, which mix styles as recklessly as the decorator.

Some of the starters do demonstrate that less is more, at least here. Angel hair pasta is tossed lightly with garlic and basil, then tossed with good grilled artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes. It will be a terrific dish once somebody remembers not to over-smoke the garlic.

The baby green salad works, too, despite an excess of the Maruken dressing, tasty as the sesame oil vinaigrette is. It consists of your basic mesclun greens flanked by crunchy herbed crostini, and it's fresh and snappy. As for the seafood bisque, it's as close to perfect as anything here. A bisque should be coral pink and as smooth as velvet, just like this saffron-flavored pond swimming with chunks of lobster and fish.

That's not to say you can't run into trouble with the early courses. Chilled asparagus and shrimp takes a perfectly fine idea and annihilates it. What could be more appealing than crisp spears of asparagus paired with big, briny prawns? But the giant prawns are served on top of an astringent cocktail sauce, which clashes mightily with the whole-grain mustard vinaigrette on the asparagus.

A pasta, vegetable and bean soup isn't far behind in the trouble sweepstakes. In Italy, pasta e fagioli is basically a bean soup with pasta. Pearls cooks up a thick tomato soup overwhelmed by oregano, then compounds the felony by adding so much rotelli you might as well be eating pasta with marinara sauce.

The entrees are even more problematic. Grilled veal medallions with herb spaetzle tastes fine but looks silly: a trio of enormous veal steaks that only a lumberjack could finish. Blackened sea bass is far too oily, as is the three-pepper relish that comes alongside over-salted rosemary potatoes.

Only the grilled New York steak, sliced at an angle and served with couscous and a reasonably subtle tomatillo sauce, would bring me back here.

Glitzy desserts are presented from a wrought-iron chariot, and first-rate coffee is poured from individual Melior pots.

The restaurant's Sacher torte is a tasteless glob of frosting, but the brandied pineapple cake and the fruit-filled crepes have their charms. One is a yellow cake with a cream cheese frosting and pieces of mahogany-tinted pineapple between the layers. The other is a casserole dish lined with rich, doughy crepes glazed in brown sugar, with a filling of summer fruits and a vanilla ice cream topping.

If this is light, gourmet eating, what, pray tell, is the heavy stuff?

Where and When

Location: Pearls: A California Grill, Warner Center Marriott Hotel, 21850 Oxnard St., Woodland Hills.

Suggested dishes: Seafood bisque, $5.50; angel hair pasta, $6.95; New York steak, $16.95; fruit crepes, $5.50.

Hours: Dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking. All major cards.

Price: Dinner for two, $45-$65.

Call: (818) 887-4800.

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