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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Talented Chef Makes Boxer a Good Bet

October 27, 1995|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There's a small, seemingly doomed restaurant space on Beverly whose luck may just have changed.

First came the short-lived Hearth, which installed a dramatic slab-rock wood oven. Then the Authentic Cafe tried a bakery-cafe, but it never really flew. Mediterraneo, a laid-back, mid-priced Italian clone, came and went apace. But now, a small intimate restaurant named Boxer has moved in, and if there's any justice in the food world, this one should thrive.

The walls are a stark-white. The banquette is dark wood. Steel and glass boxes serve as wall sconces. A small vase of fresh flowers and pert grass sits on each table. The central architectural feature remains the rock hearth.

Boxer is the kind of restaurant we should see more of and don't, a modest hall in which a talented young chef, striking out on his own, can showcase his food at modest prices and thus build up a following and support for larger, more ambitious ventures.

Boxer's chef, Neal Fraser, has worked in half a dozen or so Los Angeles restaurants, including Checkers and Scarlatti. His food is stylish, eclectically rustic and satisfying; the menu is short and varied, but there are enough off-putting obscurities--what's a Mulard duck, or Numidian hen or "byaldi"?--that I was afraid the dishes might be overwrought. But the food itself convinced me otherwise: Fraser's food works hard and hits just about all the notes, scratches almost all the itches. Add to this an affable, intelligent wait staff and meals are pleasant indeed.

Good cured salmon is coiled on a thick and chewy blini smeared with creme fraiche, with greens and lacy tufts of dill scattered over the whole. A long, crisp-fried "spring roll" of sweet shrimp and mozzarella arrives balanced on a capacious bowl of cold oven-roasted tomato soup. "Towering in Filo" (do we have to say it out loud?) is, literally, a tottering tower of filo dough filled with goat cheese and peppers and portobello mushrooms. The risotto with cepes (mushrooms) tastes mostly of wine: sour.

The Boxer salad is an amusing, molded cube of chopped tomatoes, peppers, bright yellow curried onions, chopped haricot verts and avocados that is topped with a charmingly unruly mop of fresh greens. Spears of fresh, pale romaine lettuce strewn with whole cloves of sweet roasted garlic make for a pleasantly unconventional Caesar. At lunch, there's a lovely romaine salad with grilled pears and candied pecans.

Numidian hen, an African game hen, is draped in pancetta. The skin is deeply golden and crisp; the meat moist and mild. There's a dollop of decent mashed potatoes and an assortment of pretty baby vegetables. Good grilled salmon is draped over something the menu refers to as "byaldi," which may refer to the Turkish tomato, pepper and eggplant stew, imam bayildi, which means "the imam fainted" and was named for an imam who fainted when he saw how much olive oil his wife had used to cook the eggplant. At any rate, Boxer's "byaldi" is a dense, sweet ratatouille, which is good but unlikely to provoke a faint. A crisp artichoke makes a golden rosette prettier to look at than to eat.

I loved a small, meaty ahi steak roosting on a nest of bitter greens, with one lush foie gras-and-polenta ravioli and a sharp, delicious balsamic reduction.

Large enough to feed two cavemen, two huge, beautifully caramelized lamb shanks come with a compelling "stack of socca"--the chewy pancakes made with chick pea flour that hail from the south of France.

Angela Hunter is Boxer's deft and imaginative pastry chef. Her sturdy and inspired apple almond cake proves that there is life beyond tarte tatin in this town . A perfect, crusty souffle made with Valhrona chocolate rests in a clear, pale pink puddle of peppermint sauce. Both the apple cake and the souffle come with a beguiling vanilla sorbet made with heady Tahitian vanilla beans. And don't miss the terrific tangerine flan with its tart, purple pomegranate sauce and snarl of bittersweet candied peel.

* Boxer, 7615 Beverly Blvd., (213) 932-6178 . Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday. Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Open for brunch Saturday and Sunday. No beer or wine served. Visa, MasterCard and American Express accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $39-$65.

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