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RESTAURANTS : DON'T MISS THE BOF : Affordable Country European Cuisine in an Exotic Environment

March 21, 1993|Charles Perry

Bof (rhymes with loaf ), which was about to open in the twilight zone between the Beverly Center and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, was going to look like a million bucks and feature "ancient ideas and modern flavors," with tantalizing suggestions of ancient Mesopotamia. And it was going to have reasonable prices. What more could a boy want?

So eventually I went--for lunch, because Bof took months to start serving dinner--and it turned out to be a tiny place, but its interior justified all the boasting: strikingly sculpted and textured walls, patinized in dusty rose and gilt. Every table sported a cobalt-blue candle holder and a cobalt-blue bottle of mineral water. The shakers looked like children's wooden blocks (hint: The sloping top has the pepper, the stepped top has the salt).

By this time, chef Ken Barnoski was claiming to serve "country European food" in this exotic environment, and so he did. Californianized, cutting-edge country European food, of course, with unexpected twists. For instance, the dolmas--made with Swiss chard rather than grape leaves, filled with brown rice, wild rice, pine nuts and the occasional white raisin--sat on the plate like a couple of logs, one leaning casually on the other. A grayish yogurt, walnut and garlic "hummus" was dribbled in a loose crisscross pattern around the plate. It was the sort of thing we like in this town, foreign but not too boringly Old World.

Butternut squash ravioli appealed to the widespread desire for dessert at the beginning of the meal. The pureed squash filling had a good, plush texture and the cinnamon sauce, which tasted like something between caramel and butterscotch, went surprisingly well with it.

I don't think they use the term tri-tip for a steak in Europe, but Bof's pleasantly chewy grilled tri-tip had a rich and thoroughly Continental sauce of wild mushrooms, brandy and thyme. On special one day, they served a daringly gamy rabbit meat loaf with oyster mushroom sauce--it might have come from some imaginary border between France and Greece. Even the turkey burger made an effort at being European, garnished with tomato and arugula, with a ketchup of sun-dried tomatoes and olives. But the chicken apricot pate--call it an apricot-dosed chicken-liver mousse with a big yellow-orange pool of "orange-carrot coulis " on the plate--was not the most European dish around, nor by any means the sanest.

Bof is now open for dinner, and at that hour the menu seems cramped by the country European shtick. You can still find your old friends the dolmas, the squash ravioli and the tri-tip, but a lot of the dishes refer to Louisiana or Morocco or Mexico. (Oddly, nothing directly suggests Stockholm or New Delhi, where owner Alain Der Gregorian's family runs restaurants.)

Refer may be all they do. The coconut Cajun fried rock shrimp come in a tasty dipping sauce of red currants and horseradish that would be more at home on the Mekong than the Mississippi. Two marshmallow-sized Louisiana crab cakes come on a pleasant but downright peculiar bed of diced cucumber strongly flavored with tarragon and whole-seed mustard. The barbecued Chinese duck ravioli in lingonberry beurre blanc sauce, probably the most calculated outrage on the whole menu, tastes surprisingly good, especially if you're in the mood for early dessert.

Often, though, the eclectic dishes hew surprisingly close to their respective traditions. Bof's version of Moroccan chicken bastilla is a credible single-serving portion of this sweet, cinnamony pastry. The best part of a dish of roasted pork loin is the pickled green tomatoes, said to be Moroccan, though they actually taste of curry.

You can get fried plantains with black beans or breast of free-range chicken with Southwestern/Caribbean black beans and a pancake of corn kernels and sweet peppers. Very tender and luscious Chilean sea bass comes with a sweet, unstuffed fresh corn tamale--and peppery coleslaw.

For dessert, there is the obligatory tarte tatin (underdone as usual, the thickish apple slices scarcely caramelized); good sorbets, such as peach-raspberry, an Americanized tiramisu with something like dark chocolate pudding on the bottom, and a chocolate pate, consisting of two triangular slabs of chocolate ganache in a pool of creme Anglaise and raspberry sauce.

The best and cutest dessert is the light, refreshing lemon mousse, served in a tall glass. A shot of raspberry sauce at the top and the bottom provides the kind of innocent fun one gets from chasing the fruit in the bottom of a yogurt carton.

The wine list, rife with California boutique wineries such as Au Bon Climat and Bonny Doon, is reasonably priced. The waiter whips out some purplish tapenade (a spread of chopped olives and capers) as soon as you sit down, and often a bonne bouche as well, such as a tiny duck-stuffed flauta. The salt shaker looks like a giant Monopoly board piece. What more could a boy want?

Bof, 8566 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles; (310) 275-7090. Beer and wine. Valet parking. Visa and Mastercard accepted. Lunch served Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday. Dinner for two, food only, $38-$57.

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