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RESTAURANT REVIEW

In Search of Coziness, Comfort Food

February 02, 1996|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

During these chill winter evenings, I find myself craving coziness, good conversation and plates of hot, stick-to-your-ribs food. Comfort and comfort food. It's the season.

So I listened as over the past few months, friends mentioned just such meals in a couple of Los Angeles restaurants. Off Vine has been around almost forever--or at least a decade, which by Los Angeles restaurant standards is forever. And Provencia opened just over a year ago. I visited both in search of winter sustenance, and found just that. Both are charmingly unpretentious, a bit anachronistic, not the least trendy.

Off Vine, long a favorite with the pre-theater crowd (it's a good post-prandial stroll up to the Doolittle), is a converted house. You can distinguish it from its neighbors by the valet stand, a small neon sign and the enormous shark crashing through its roof.

Inside, votives flicker on tables, ledges and mantles and, reflected, in diamond-paned windows. Where there once were halls, living room, parlor and bedrooms, there's a sea of tables with handsome wooden chairs. Diners include everyone from swank dates to a large twentysomething birthday party, to a lone odd character actor muttering into his cappuccino.

The large portions of California cuisine have not changed much over the years. Appetizers are basic: sweet and snappy carrot ginger soup, smoky corn chowder, a mild Caesar salad, a plate of grilled (if undercooked) eggplant with roasted peppers and deep-fried goat cheese. Baked "Adriatic" shrimp, lightly breaded, come with a sweet, smooth citrus sauce. No surprises there.

Meat with fruit is, in fact, a favorite motif. Chicken breasts breaded with ground pecans are topped with a strongly alcoholic pear sauce. Blackened turkey breasts wear a thick layer of maroon, gelatinous cranberry relish. A salmon filet is draped in a carmine cloak of raspberry sauce. I preferred more savory dishes: A special tuna with shiitakes is terrific, and lamb chops are beautifully handled.

All entrees come with firm, buttery string beans, carrot puree, and either mashed potatoes or rice pilaf--remember rice pilaf?

Be sure to order dessert souffles ahead: They're the best choice. A banana cream pie is overwrought and the cobbler tastes like peaches and oatmeal.

* Off Vine, 6263 Leland Way, Hollywood, (213) 962-1900. Open for lunch Monday through Friday. Open for dinner seven days. Brunch on Sunday. Beer and wine served. Valet parking. MasterCard, Visa and American Express accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $42-$70.

*

I wasn't crazy for Provencia when I first went there: The cute asides on the menu and unctuous service seemed overeager and overbearing--we'll make you like us whether you want to or not. A year of steady business has softened the assault and the place seems to have settled into its own.

Provencia may not be a great French restaurant but the coziness quotient is growing. It's a good place to go for a quiet meal with a friend, although the service still can cloy: Does the waiter really need to say, "Thank you," each time he clears a plate?

You still get a flower pot of enormous raw vegetable hunks: cucumber, cauliflower, a whole waxy Roma tomato. Oh well. The charcuterie plate, however, will cheer anyone up: Good salami, prosciutto and a delicious pa^te are served with real cornichons and a crock of grainy mustard. I also liked the Provencia salad, with cooked string beans. Carrot ginger soup, here, is thin, barely sweet, altogether wan.

The lamb chops are still a deal; grilled rare, served with a mountain of mashed potatoes and a crinkled heap of onion rings. Pass on the porcini risotto, though: It's watery and the mushrooms, usually silken in this dish, are waterlogged and rubbery. Rotisserie chicken is moist, plump, satisfying. French fries are a must: They're crisp, golden, piping hot. And Neal's French Toast, with chocolate syrup and ice cream, is still the recommended dessert.

* Provencia, 945 N. Fairfax Ave., West Hollywood, (213) 654-4594. Open for lunch Mondays through Fridays. Open for dinner Mondays through Saturdays. Beer and wine served. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $35-$60.

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