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RESTAURANTS : A MAN OF HIS WORD : After Closing One Restaurant a Year Ago, Larry Nicola Is Back--and Cooking

January 09, 1994|Colman Andrews

When a restaurateur, closing down his restaurant, vows, "I shall return," it's usually not a good idea to bet your next meal that he will. Everybody tries to bow out gracefully or bravely; not everybody has the stuffing (or the bucks) to come back.

Larry Nicola, though, has made good on his promise. In August, 1992, when he shuttered his 13-year-old L.A. Nicola in Silver Lake, he announced that before long, he planned to open a casual, outdoor food-service facility and an upscale, indoor dining room--both in the new Sanwa Bank Plaza at Wilshire Boulevard and Figueroa Street, Downtown. Lo and behold, that's exactly what he has done. He launched the Kiosk at Nicola--a breakfast-through-quitting-time food stand serving pastries, sandwiches, tamales, salads and the like--in May. In October, he debuted his new full-scale restaurant, called simply Nicola, adjacent to and spilling out into the building's atrium lobby.

It is hardly the typical bank-building eatery. The interior was designed by architect Michael Rotondi; as part of the now-defunct Morphosis, he was also responsible for L.A. Nicola (and for 72 Market St., Kate Mantilini, etc.). Nicola is bold and a bit unsettling, though great fun to look at and slightly more comfortable than it appears. Outside, a curving banquette of seats--constructed of xylophone-like metal slats, set into bases of granite boulders--surrounds more chairs and tables like the ones inside. Overhead in one corner is a shape that suggests a fragment of a shattered astrolabe. It's all a bit jarring and hard-edged.

Los Angeles Times Sunday January 30, 1994 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 2 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
In a review of Nicola restaurant (Jan. 9) it was incorrectly reported that the architecture firm Morphosis had closed. Although Michael Rotondi has left the firm, it continues to operate under the direction of Thom Mayne.

A similar boldness, but with plenty of attractively soft edges, characterizes the polyglot menu. Nicola himself is the chef, and he produces dishes with a sense of flavor that is pure and uncompromising, using spice, acidity, pungency, bitterness and salt in simple but not simple-minded combinations.

Appetizers are particularly diverse. A serving of ciabatta bread, roasted garlic, Greek-style olives and Iowa-bred Maytag Blue cheese is an abbreviated Mediterranean-rustic picnic on a plate. A similarly multinational offering, a charred pasilla chile stuffed with crisply sauteed bits of lamb and melting Port Salut cheese with tomatillo sauce beneath, has the feeling of an improvised refrigerator snack (if you've got a reasonably sophisticated refrigerator), with an appropriate comfort-food solidity to it. Squid, perfectly deep-fried in a bread-crumb crust, come with what looks like a conventional tomato salsa--which happens to be accented, unexpectedly but agreeably, with the sourness of rice vinegar.

Perhaps the best appetizer of all, though, is Nicola's classic version of the Lebanese steak tartare, kibbe. Made with ground lamb mixed with bulgur wheat, mildly sweet and aromatic, it is flavored hauntingly with cinnamon and allspice, topped with roasted pine nuts and served with triangles of pita, slices of raw onion and a little dish of coarse salt. The only real disappointments among the appetizers are a smoked-shrimp-and-leek soup, in whose otherwise delicious shellfish broth there floated about 3 1/2 minuscule shrimp and a dozen or so strips of blackened leek one evening, and a salad of mustard greens (too many), black-eyed peas (not enough) and corn-bread croutons (boring as old toast).

Main courses are, in general, less exotic--but they are hardly predictable. A section of rice and noodle dishes, most available in either appetizer- or entree-sized portions, includes a wonderfully salty, almost smoky dish of pan-fried broad rice noodles with crisp bits of duck, sauteed bok choy and--strange but true, and not bad at all--cranberries. Meat and fish seem equally honored here. There's soul-satisfying grilled peppered rib eye with scalloped dill- flavored potatoes (truly memorable) or London broil, which is almost earthy-tasting skewered rounds of skirt steak with Gorgonzola sauce and roasted tomatoes on one hand. And on the other hand, pan-fried monkfish glistening in a rich and concentrated Chinese pepper sauce (made, that is, with

Sichuan pepper, which has a quality reminiscent of cloves and cedar) and moist but crisp-skinned whole New Zealand snapper with a sauce of soy, garlic and sake, served over vegetable fried rice. At lunchtime, there is an excellent oversized hamburger with first-rate fries, and an only-in-America sandwich of thin-sliced charred rare ahi tuna on challah bread with watercress and Japanese pickled ginger, accompanied by a small, cumin-scented black bean salad. Is this a great country or what ?

Desserts, from a frequently changing menu, seem less successful than most of the other dishes--an almost chalky chocolate pudding cake, a pedestrian pumpkin cheesecake--though there is sometimes a quite wonderful apple-rhubarb crisp served in a big white bowl with vanilla ice cream.

Service is crackerjack, and there are rolled small towels in the rest rooms. It sure is nice that Larry Nicola kept his word.

Nicola, Sanwa Bank Plaza, 601 S . Figueroa St . , Los Angeles; (213) 485-0927. Breakfast and lunch served Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday. Full bar. Validated parking in building garage at lunch and dinner; valet parking available at dinner. All major credit cards accepted. Lunch for two, food only, $30-$40; dinner, $51-$67.

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