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RESTAURANT REVIEW

Otto's Gives a Credible Performance

May 31, 1996|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Otto's Grill and Beer Bar sits under the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. On a weeknight, before going to the theater, we stop in for dinner. "What time is your curtain?" our waiter inquires.

Seven-thirty, we tell him.

"We'll get you there, no problem."

We relax, break into a La Brea Bakery demi-baguette, scoop on a ricotta-pesto spread, and look around.

The dining room is divided in two tiers with booths and tables and handsome wooden chairs. The walls are paved with large black-and-white photos: Judy Garland with a very young Liza, and Mary Martin, posed stiffly on a driftwood log with the score of "South Pacific." A red grid hangs over part of the room; perhaps it's to remind us, however abstractly, of a trellis in a beer garden--after all, Otto's is a beer bar, with 11 beers on tap and a good assortment of lambics, wheat beers, stouts, porters, Trappist and abbey ales.

*

I'm a little skeptical. This is, after all, the mid-range restaurant in the Music Center and it is run by an organization called Restaurant Associates. If a person wants dinner before the symphony or supper afterward, Otto's is the most convenient option. Dining at Otto's also makes more use of the garage's $7 parking fee and eliminates the need of shuttles. (Conversely, the expensive parking discourages anyone who isn't attending a Music Center event to eat there.) Given its odd location and purpose, Otto's will have, if not a captive audience, a somewhat automatic one. I expect Otto's to be adequate at best.

I am always happy to be relieved of faulty prejudices.

The place does have a corporate gleam, a slick please-everybody polish found in anonymous hotel restaurants. This is not all bad. The menu has impressive range--the older couple behind us settles for soup and that good bread; their bill, with coffee, will be under $15 for two. The party to our left is wining and dining--crab cakes, chops, desserts--and their food alone will run up to $45 per person. We're smack in the middle, with our antipasti plates, pastas, meal-sized salads, ringing in at $15-$25 each.

The food, it turns out, is more than passable. The antipasti bar in particular offers some real treats: oven-roasted leeks, strawberries marinated in balsamic vinegar, lemon-infused artichokes, good goat cheese and olives. A single plate makes a good appetizer for two, a perfect lunch or light supper for one.

Curiously, a "caramelized onion tart with plum tomatoes and seared tuna" has no onions on it--no matter, it's tasty enough we don't much mind the omission. Dwarfed by a mountain of mesclun salad, crab cakes seem very small, but they are solid, sweet Dungeness crab. A mild carrot and turnip soup is quite pleasant. Garbanzo bean soup, curried and topped with pesto, is muddled by so many flavors.

*

Portions are on the generous side. A bowl of good penne pasta with vegetables and chicken goes on forever: It must contain two whole chicken breasts. The trick here may well be to eat modestly enough to stay awake through the pending performance.

Roasted chicken, moist and earthy with rosemary, has a good sticky-crisp skin. A thick, flavorful, juicy salmon steak is served with the house's addictive skinny French fries. Filet mignon au poivre does not have much poivre (pepper), but it is a lovely, hefty piece of meat. Sauteed spinach, dotted with garlic, is still crunchy.

Lobster salad, however, disappoints. The lobster is sweet, the citrus dressing delicious, the asparagus spears perfectly steamed--but for $19.95, it's too minimal.

Unfortunately, service is not always on a par with the food. Although the restaurant is not very full and swarms with staff, we sit for long periods with empty plates, have no time for dessert and make our 7:30 curtain by the skin of our teeth.

Another visit, this time with no curtain to catch, I taste a creditable creme bru^lee and a lovely rustic pear tart or "crostata."

During weekdays, Otto's does a deservedly brisk lunch business: There's a good Asian-style slaw topped with roasted quail--and that fun, surprising antipasti bar.

* Otto's Grill & Beer Bar, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 972-7322. Open for lunch, dinner 7 days. Open for late supper Tuesday through Sunday. Full bar. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $25-$86.

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