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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Semi-Gala Dining at Cafe Gale

June 04, 1993|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Part Art Deco, part neo-Frank Lloyd Wright, all glass brick and concrete curlicue, Cafe Gale sits on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Gale Street like a big wedge of fancy cake.

We walked into this confection on a recent Friday night to sample the handiwork of Cafe Gale's new chef, Nori-Noriyuka Namba, formerly of Symphonie Restaurant in Torrance.

Once inside the glass doors, it's all pink linens and green chairs and clear light streaming in through the windows and glass brick walls. There's a full bar, busy on a Friday night with a weary but cheerful after-the-office crowd. There's a wacky, cartoonish, semi-abstract wall sculpture of Beverly Hills. And, lovingly arranged in glass display cases, there's the owner's collection of antique toy trucks. These disparate factors combine to make Cafe Gale somewhat difficult to describe: It's part mainstream singles bar, part upscale coffee shop, and part quirky/personal museum such as one might happen across in the desert--only in the desert.

The menu, like the restaurant's decor, is also a bit of a hodgepodge.

Chef Namba describes his cooking as "Cooking of No Country," but it looks to us like Cooking of California from the mid-1980s to the present: A no-longer-so-eclectic blend of Italian, French, Pan Asian and American foods. Namba does have his own combinations and variations, and some of them succeed better than others.

The first items we tasted at Cafe Gale were among the best we had there and thus, perhaps, raised our expectations unduly. Tuna tartar, a mound of raw tuna and avocado perfectly seasoned with soy and wasabi, was like chopped tuna sashimi or California roll. It was terrific spread on little toast rounds and even better on leaves of Belgian endive.

Duck crepe, a sturdy buckwheat pancake stuffed with very moist Peking duck, was also tasty. Had the entire meal followed the lead established by these two dishes, all would have been well.

But the Caesar salad had an only-average dressing. Rib-eye steak was served with a sweet and purposeless Madeira sauce. Spaghetti with wild mushrooms was even more disappointing; the mushrooms had been marinated in soy and lemon until they had no discernible mushroom flavor.

To Cafe Gale's credit, our waitress, a cheerful young woman, noticed that the spaghetti was barely touched. She had a talk with the manager, and graciously removed the item from our bill. Unfortunately, service on future visits was not nearly so good; other waiters were inexperienced and exhibited a certain balkiness around the tables. It seemed they would have preferred to sit undisturbed by customers at the employee table in the bar.

*

Another dinner at Cafe Gale was almost the reverse of the first; this time the appetizers were a disappointment. Chinese-style pork ravioli were gummy, undercooked packets of pork sausage in an orange sauce. A tempura seafood roll--crab, whitefish, avocado and cucumber rolled in seaweed, battered, fried and cut in four--was served in attractive cross-sectional rounds. Unfortunately, it tasted slightly fishy.

On the other hand, lightly marinated roasted pork chops were delicious, and nicely balanced by the accompanying sauteed apples with currants. On the side was a compellingly chewy blend of basmati and wild rice. Poached Chilean sea bass on a bed of angel hair pasta was also wonderful.

Saturday brunch at Cafe Gale was quiet and mostly unexceptional, characterized by acceptable food and inexpert service. Eggs are not this restaurant's strong suit: A spinach omelet was a folded circle of spinach bound together by eggs. Smoked salmon and eggs, cooked together with onions, was a dish that was mostly dry. A seafood burger turned out to be a curiously rubbery patty of ground shrimp and whitefish that tasted like nothing so much as fried gefilte fish.

There is an unevenness that pervades the dining experience at Cafe Gale. The decor is puzzling in its variety, the kitchen both ambitious and inconsistent. As a result, it's impossible to predict whether you will come away with a wholly pleasant dining experience.

* Cafe Gale, 8400 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (213) 655-2494. Open for lunch and dinner daily, brunch on Saturday and Sunday. Full bar. Major credit cards accepted. Parking in lot and on street. Dinner for two, food only , $29-$60.

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