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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Patinette: Reality Begins to Take Hold

October 21, 1994|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Joachim Splichal's Patinette first opened at MOCA two months ago, a marvelous gloss of high quality seemed to sparkle over everything; there were cloth napkins, ceramic demitasses, a highly civilized, European ambience. Rarely has fast food looked so appealing.

Already in its short life, Patinette's menu has been revamped, the prices raised a bit, some portions cut. Appetizers, which once appeared at the top of the menu, have been eliminated or absorbed into the list of deli salads, perhaps to streamline ordering. Marinated goat cheese, a huge beautiful disc fished from a great jar of golden green olive oil, once sated four people; it was the sort of thing that hung shimmering in your mind, pulled you from your desk job and led you like a zombie through the city to its source. Today, far smaller discs cut straight from the roll of cheese, are set out on a plate, lightly drizzled with oil, served with a roasted tomato, a sprig of rosemary, one teeny, pitted olive. It's still good, but not irresistible.

Asparagus spears, blanched a deep green, are paired with the muted purple of grilled red onions. Marinated roasted oyster and cap mushrooms are as full-bodied as meat. A "Feta-terranean" salad is a Greek salad aerated with crisp spears of romaine. Still, Splichal's deli case food does not escape the pitfalls of deli case food in general: Some days, the salads can seem limp and redolent of stray flavors. Especially susceptible are pasta salads made with thick, undercooked, gummy imported pastas, like the pennini with shrimp or a hand-rolled tube with vegetables.

Soups are excellent--I'm especially fond of the gazpacho, a cool, pureed soup with deep tomato power and a dollop of Patina's fruity house olive oil. Best of all are sandwiches. Grilled scallions infuse moist roast chicken on firm-crumbed country white bread. Lamb, medium rare and tender, is paired with dense, sweet oven-roasted tomatoes on sturdy rosemary focaccia and served with a terrific, deep green salad of haricot verts and arugula.

The cafe's initial gloss, however, has dulled; the first burst of ambition and enthusiasm tempered, perhaps, by reality: Despite a cultured clientele, Patinette is, after all, only a small, moderately priced art museum cafeteria. Still, if you're downtown and hungry, it's a lovely spot to eat and people-watch.

The ordering process needs still more streamlining. If you want more than a salad and a drink, it can be downright stressful. Some foods are dished up on the spot, some require heating or assembly, others are made in the kitchen and brought to the table. If it's at all busy, servers won't keep a running tab, which means you either have to order all at once or keep returning to the line. If you're ordering for more than one person, the confusion mounts. Each visit, by the time we have our food and scored a table, my friends and I have collapsed into our chairs.

There are a few tables indoors, but with the sun beating in through the plate glass wall and the long lines, it's not exactly a place to relax. Of course, outside at noon, the small, sunken plaza, with its red rock walls, is a hot box, too. Plastic chairs cluster under canvas umbrellas and shade is at a premium.

The best bet is a later lunch, after the sun has passed its zenith. It's quieter and there is less hassle to order.

Or, Patinette will deliver with an hour's notice and a minimum order of $20.

All told, Patinette has some very nice touches--and some odd economies. Silverware is heavy, out-sized silver plate, a luxury. But coffee comes in cardboard cups, which is fine for some brews, but by the time a cardboard demitasse of espresso reaches the table outside, it's tepid as tap water.

One thing has improved since Patinette's first week: The lemon tart, once impossible to cut, now has a crumbly, buttery crust. Also recommended: the chocolate crunch cake, whose crunch is cunningly located in the thinnest web of crispy cake beneath a killer chocolate mousse.

* Patinette at MOCA, 250 S. Grand Ave . , Los Angeles . (213) 626-1178. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Thursday until 8 p.m. Beer and wine served. MasterCard, Visa, and American Express accepted. Lunch for two, food only $15-$34.

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