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The Border Between Bold and Bland

July 21, 1996|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Just like every other local foodie on Saturday mornings, I tune in to "Good Food," the KCRW radio program hosted by Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger of Santa Monica's Border Grill. The two

chefs, who've been cooking together for 17 1/2 years, share a deep love and knowledge of food. They're clearly fascinated by the subject and explore wide-ranging topics each week, everything from fiery Caribbean salt cod dishes to the Scottish delicacy haggis. And how patiently, how reassuringly they answer callers' questions, gently nudging listeners to extend their repertoire of techniques, to attempt new dishes, to be adventurous.

Trained in classical French kitchens, Milliken and Feniger have indulged their culinary wanderlust in travels all over the world--tasting regional cuisines firsthand, investigating markets and collecting recipes from home cooks along the way. Actually, both "Good Food" and "Two Hot Tamales," their Food Network cable TV show, are more about cooking than exacting recipes, which is refreshing. I love the way they taste as they go along, sharing a little trick, thinking up variations on the spot. They never talk down to their audience. And they're not afraid to introduce challenging ingredients or ideas. Who else can make tripe or tongue sound so appealing? In fact, when I watch these two cooking on the air, everything looks so delicious that I want to run right out and eat at Border Grill.

Yet whenever I have, the meal I've gotten has been disappointingly uneven. Sometimes Milliken and Feniger's passion for Mexican regional cooking translates into what's on the plate. Sometimes not. The restaurant is also handicapped by a space as cavernous as a warehouse, all hard surfaces, drafty and impossibly noisy. Gigantic murals in bright colors sizzle on the walls and ceiling but fail to warm the room. There's a busy bar with a table that must seat 20 or more. Despite the crowds and the din, however, Border Grill can feel just a little forlorn.

Margaritas made with freshly squeezed lime juice and the tequila of your choice are swell. The fried chips are the real thing, blistered from the oil and not at all greasy, though they're served with a trio of humdrum salsas that carry only the faintest prickle of heat. The ceviche, often Pacific snapper, is exemplary, fragrant with cilantro, lime and chile. Dainty green corn tamales can be wonderful when they're not too sweet. Also worth trying are the plantain empanadas, miniature turnovers made from a plantain dough stuffed with cumin-scented black beans. And there's no better summer supper than an order of the chunky handmade guacamole and a couple of the chilled Yucatan tacos, supple corn tortillas heaped with seafood or stewed nopales. I like the rosy rock shrimp.

While the marinated grilled skirt steak and the charred chicken al carbon

make satisfying, rustic meals, the most interesting entrees are the daily specials. One night, it's a fabulous rack of lamb stained with achiote

and served with a string of chubby chorizo. Another time, it's grilled soft-shelled crabs dusted with chile powder and presented on a sweet corn pancake with a mango and snap pea salad. Or the Yucatan-style seafood gumbo with New Zealand green-lipped mussels and violet-tinged baby octopus in a rich broth laced with rice, sweet peppers and golden raisins.

But a lot of the cooking is lackluster. Eulalia's chips, soggy nachos of black beans and crumbled Mexican cheese, are bland. Chiles rellenos are oily; the Guatamalan tamales, ponderously heavy. Chilaquiles

are more chicken than tortilla strips and too dry to boot. Ropa vieja

tastes more like sauteed steak than flavorful beef stewed so long that it's as soft and shredded as old rags. Where are all those intriguing dishes I've seen on TV?

When the Border Grill was just a tiny place next to L.A. Eyeworks on Melrose Avenue, I couldn't get enough of the vibrant salsas, the glorious little tacos, the surprising regional dishes. Now, even though I know better, I keep returning to the new Border Grill, expecting the same enticing cooking. And I know I'm not alone. With the radio and TV shows drawing crowds, it just may be that Milliken and Feniger aren't supervising the kitchen as closely as they used to.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

BORDER GRILL

CUISINE: Mexican.

AMBIENCE: Cavernous, boldly painted Mexican cafe with frenetic bar scene and high-decibel din.

BEST DISHES: Ceviche, plantain empanadas, Yucatan chilled tacos, chicken al carbon, roasted rack of lamb.

DRINKS: Margaritas; Marques de Riscal Rioja, 1993.

FACTS: 1445 Fourth St., Santa Monica; (310) 451-1655. Open daily for dinner only. Dinner for two, food only, $25 to $60. Corkage $8. Parking in city lot across the street.

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