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RESTAURANTS : Cafe Camellia: The Secret's in the Sauce (s)

July 29, 1994|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BELLFLOWER — I didn't want to go to Bellflower to eat, and nobody I knew wanted to go there either. I'd been to enough French and Continental restaurants out in the suburbs and eaten my share of murky wine sauces, too much tarragon and strange specialties of the house including, at one place, alligator. And I'd dragged my friends to enough far-flung fiascoes to make them equally balky. But recently, I had a house guest who wanted to take me out to dinner. "If you are a true friend," I said, "you would let me take you to Bellflower, to Cafe Camellia."

I knew nothing about Cafe Camellia, but someone had given me a menu. Except for calamari Szechwan and blackened mahi mahi and Cajun shrimp, the menu was hard-core Continental (duck liver pate, petrale sole Duglere, escalope of veal, duck in cherry sauce). "Continental Drift cuisine," we named it, and my house guest announced with great snobbery and ingratitude, "There is nothing here I want to eat, except maybe lamb chops."

We found Cafe Camellia next to a car window tinting shop four blocks north of the 91 Freeway on Bellflower Boulevard. The two white-walled dining rooms were spare, simple, elegant. The flowers were fresh; the tablecloths damask. We scanned an ambitious, lengthy, reasonably priced wine list and ordered starters. Fluffy dinner rolls were shaped like amorphous croissants. My guest held one up. "The places I've let you drag me. . . ."

But then came Cajun shrimp, four fat, sweet prawns lightly blackened with ground chile and salt; the saltiness was smoothed by a mild pepper cream sauce and a tuft of barely cooked spinach added a pleasing vegetal crunch. Next, we ate slippery, sexy slices of eggplant marinated in sesame oil and garlic and topped with thin, wiry shreds of cheese. By then, we knew we were in seriously competent hands, and nothing contradicted this. Spinach salad had only the faintest, most beguiling hint of tarragon in its smart, warm lemony dressing. White bean soup du jour was a clear, full-bodied broth smoky with good pancetta .

*

Poached salmon came swathed in an unimaginably light and subtle sour cream dill sauce. My surly house guest ate his words along with excellent, juicy lamb chops. Entrees were served with beautifully steamed fresh vegetables and true scalloped potatoes: sliced potatoes baked in cream. We felt great shame for our unwarranted prejudices. In penance, we cleaned our plates.

That first dinner was the best, partly because of the sheer thrill of having our expectations so soundly dashed, and partly because we came rather late on a slow evening, and there weren't many other plates vying for the chef's close attention. The food was never less than lovely. But that night, the chef agreed--grudgingly--to make for us a lovely, crusty, custardy chocolate souffle with a Gran Marnier sauce for drizzling.

This is a restaurant of sauces, which sounds--and is--retro. Sauces, especially cream sauces, have fallen into ill favor precisely because they often aren't as varied or restrained as those found here. A spirited fresh tomato sauce spikes crunchy bites of creamy, bland fried buffala mozzarella. Triangular wedges of calamari stew in a clear sauce of soy, red peppers, onions and whole roasted garlic. Poached veal sweetbreads provide a pillow of exquisite blandness for a sauce of goose liver and shaved truffles. One risks inebriation, however, with forest mushrooms in a brandy cream sauce.

Salads are fresh and lovely, although the Caesar needs better quality Parmesan cheese. The only weak link on the menu is the pasta; the combination pasta plate with ravioli, gnocchi and fusilli is dull, and pasta primavera, despite lovely fresh vegetables, is gluey.

"Crispy duck" is moist and flavorful, but not crispy. The kitchen does have a tendency to repeat itself: Fresh yellowtail, a special, shows up in the same spices and pepper cream sauce as the Cajun shrimp and, good as it is, I wish I'd tried the escalope of venison, or swordfish with artichokes--something different.

Desserts, from Camellia's sister restaurant, Boulevard Bistro, tend toward fussy cakes and tarts. Better to wait for the room to clear, and beg a souffle. * Cafe Camellia, 16916 Bellflower Blvd., Bellflower , (310) 866-2824. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, dinner seven nights. Beer and wine served. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $25-$66.

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