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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Flavors Fight It Out at the New Puran's


Puran's, a small neighborhood restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard in Silver Lake, has opened a second location on the particularly hip block of La Brea, which also houses the American Rag Company, art galleries and the new Sonora Cafe.

Modest, cozy, this La Brea Puran's attracts small groups of local diners who prefer a quiet meal away from the noisier, dressier throngs. At one table, two young women scribble on butcher-papered tabletops with crayons provided in a sugar bowl. At another sits a dating couple: The young man has spiked his hair, and the fruity perfume of his hair product gusts through the room.

The long, narrow storefront is optically enlarged by a wall of mirrors and decorated with stray bits lifted from other people's living rooms. The room looks partly like a stage set, partly like a set dresser's storeroom. Votive candles illuminate a lavish bouquet on a fake wooden mantle. Walls (with an air-conditioning unit) have a faux blond-wood finish and are strewn with architectural details wrenched out of context and displayed randomly: a Mexican folk art plate, a carved wooden lintel, an oil painting of rococo dancers in bodices, bustles and wigs. Wrought iron--in chandeliers, chairs--adds a motif of black curlicues.

There's also a small sidewalk patio dining area, which is tempting on these warm summer nights.

A small, no-frills kitchen manned by three guys in baseball caps occupies the back of the restaurant. The food that comes out of this kitchen is a workmanlike version of what so many other cafes have to offer--pizza, pasta, a handful of entrees, etc.--although Puran's fare is characterized by an intensity (some would say a confusion) of flavors.

Salads are probably the best plates at Puran's. I especially like a meal-sized, warm spinach and arugula salad with lightly cooked scallops and mushrooms. Another warm salad with mixed, lightly cooked vegetables and pleasurable hanks of wilted greens goes well with a dollop of hot goat cheese. I also like fried calamari on a vast bed of lemony, herbed cucumber slices. While a good grilled portobello mushroom can be gloriously meaty, the one served here on baby greens has an unsatisfying, watery taste. Thanks to a thick, fishy dressing, the Caesar is unacceptably soggy.

Thin-crusted pizzas are freighted with too much topping. The No. 2 pizza, for example, with artichokes and prosciutto, has a thick blanket of rubbery mozzarella implanted with marinated artichokes, capers, tomatoes, wads of prosciutto and Greek olives that turn unpleasantly bitter when heated: too many sharp, warring flavors in one place.

A simple linguine with olive oil, parsley, garlic, capers and anchovies comes close to being one of those simple, sublime dishes; unfortunately, a big slug of pesto is tossed in to confuse the flavors. It's difficult to eat more than a few of the decent potato gnocchi, as they're swamped in a rich Gorgonzola tomato-cream sauce.

The best entree I tried is a nice-sized slab of halibut sauteed with a dash of pomegranate syrup and served on a nutty Basmati rice pilaf, with crunchy steamed vegetables on the side. But entrees can also court a murky confabulation from tossing too many loud flavors on the same plate. Pommes frites with an entreco^te are terrific, but the steak itself, a dull-tasting sirloin, swims in a thick, pungent red wine and mustard gravy. A tough, undercooked breast of chicken is over-stuffed with gobs of goat cheese, basil, chopped tomatoes: What, we wonder, is the point of this dish? Spicy grilled shrimp come unpeeled, legs on, on a snarl of capellini alla checca doctored with a strong dose of cilantro. (Question: Do you peel the shrimp? Or eat the skin and legs, an experience akin to chewing Scotch tape?)

On several occasions our entrees are so disappointing, we aren't tempted to stay for dessert. The one time we do linger, a Key Lime bundt cake (what an idea!) is oily, unappealing, and the shallow creme bru^lee is rubbery, its melted sugar top hard and thick as a pane of glass.

* Puran's La Brea, 142 S. La Brea, Los Angeles; (213) 933-5742. Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner. Closed Monday. Beer and wine served. MasterCard, Visa, and American Express accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$60.

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