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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Paradise's Temptations Fall Short : Despite an alluring facade, the cafe's jungle-like decor lacks focus and its American fare menu often fails to deliver.

August 11, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

NORTH HOLLYWOOD — Naming a restaurant Paradise is risky business, particularly when what you have is basically a gussied-up American coffee shop. Paradise Cafe, the new restaurant at Beverly Garland's Holiday Inn near Universal City, appears ambitious enough to take such a risk.

This winsome, vaguely jungle-themed place is affiliated with two South Bay restaurants, Paradise in Torrance and Paradise Cafe in Redondo Beach. From the outside, it has definite appeal; a spiffy patio with blue beach umbrellas frames the south side of the restaurant, and the combination of sprawling grounds and a low-rise hotel building brings to mind a Mexican Riviera resort.

For me, though, the charm comes to an abrupt halt at the front door. Inside it looks as if the design team couldn't decide whether to go for nostalgia or tropical exoticism. The toothpaste-green walls are decorated with collages of old Look magazine covers, Elvis photos and suchlike time-capsule stuff. The side windows have Venetian mini-blinds, and some artsy ice cream parlor chairs add a nice retro touch.

Meanwhile, other chairs have leopard upholstery, there are jungle foliage patterns on the backs of the vinyl booths and ceiling fans twirl languidly overhead, implying a Singapore, circa 1950, concept that is incongruous with the pastel tones and non-tropical oddments. Maybe the whole idea was originally slated to be some kind of postmodern waiting room.

The menu doesn't offer anything nearly as imaginative as the decor. Paradise basically deals in solid American fare, occasionally embellished by California cuisine essentials such as sun-dried tomatoes, jalapen~o Cheddar bread and roasted garlic.

Most of the appetizers are fried, which doesn't leave a weight watcher many options. Chicken strips are among the best things here, anyway, breaded as they are with a light, crunchy cornmeal coating that tastes like hush puppies (the Southern snack, not the shoe). By contrast, some items, such as the fried clams, taste as if they were dumped into the deep fryer straight from a freezer bag, and the batter on the sweet onion straws is soggy with oil.

The salad section fares somewhat better, even if a couple of the salads lead you down the garden path, as it were. What the menu calls Cobb salad in a tortilla shell is quite good, although not a real Cobb. Mine was rough-cut pieces of grilled chicken, plenty of hand-torn bacon, chunks of lettuce, some chopped tomato and an enjoyable blue cheese vinaigrette, and no avocado. The name Sichuan chicken salad suggests something spicy, but this one--nicely loaded with shredded chicken, fried rice noodles and roasted peanuts--is staggeringly sugary, so sweet your teeth will hurt.

There's not much to complain about in the sandwich department. Three sandwiches--roasted turkey, tuna salad and classic club--come on a swell jalapen~o Cheddar bread, a nice touch. The turkey sandwich may be a trifle busy, smeared with a roasted garlic and sun-dried tomato aioli. The hamburger is thick and juicy, and there are excellent French fries to eat with it.

When this menu gets fancy, it usually trips up. Spaghetti d'angelo and Paradise stir-fry are two of the sadder dishes I've had in recent months. The stir-fry is a sweet, sticky mess of overcooked broccoli, celery, peppers, snow peas, canned water chestnuts and wilted mushrooms. The rice it is served over manages to be stickier yet. My spaghetti came to the table overcooked, bland and bare, with a few lonely pieces of basil and tomato peeking out from under the noodles.

The Yankee pot roast is stringy but tender, with a good, meaty flavor. Sirloin black bean chili is almost flawless, unless you don't like a strong cumin aftertaste. Big chunks of sirloin take up as much space as the beans, and the mix is complex and flavorful. I'd also recommend the fish and chips, one more of the fried dishes the kitchen does well. Fresh snapper, seasoned bread crumbs and a good fry cook make for a good, low-priced supper, along with fries and a tangy, tart coleslaw.

I should mention that all prices are reasonable at Paradise Cafe, and this may keep the restaurant afloat despite some of its problems. I doubt that the desserts will add much ballast to its voyage, though.

Outside of an apple pie and a plain commercial cheesecake, the menu lists only a bread pudding (the restaurant has been out of it every time I've tried to order) and a banana split, the latter made with a less-than-premium ice cream and aerosol whipped cream. (The banana on mine was ripe, anyway.) For dessert lovers, this restaurant could be renamed Paradise Lost.

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WHERE AND WHEN

Location: Paradise Cafe, 4224 Vineland Ave., North Hollywood.

Suggested dishes: Chicken strips, $5.50; sirloin black bean chili, $6.95; all-American burger, $5.25; fish and chips, $6.95.

Hours: 6 a.m. to midnight daily.

Price: Dinner for two, $15 to $23. Full bar. Parking in lot. All major cards.

Call: (818) 985-6567.

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