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New Kids on the Block

September 01, 1996|S. Irene Virbila

Good small restaurants, opened by cooks who are more passionate about food than finances, are popping up all over town, often in out-of-the-way spots. One of the brightest of the bunch is on a nondescript corner of Pico Boulevard in a modest building painted the color of a Tuscan villa.

The minute you walk in the door, 2424 Pico entices with the smells of cumin and garlic and basil. And either David LaRue, who owns the restaurant with chef David Wolf, or Scott Tracy, the wine director, welcome you warmly. The dining room, with its picture windows looking out onto the street, is painted in vivid golds and reds. A row of whimsical iron chandeliers leads the way to the bar at the back, hidden from view. (There are also, incidentally, a handful of tables for smokers.) The overall effect is charming. Unfortunately, the boldly patterned banquettes are about as comfortable as sitting on ironing boards, but this is a small glitch that's easily fixed.

The menu at 2424 is eclectic, but don't let that put you off. It has a personal stamp--maybe because Wolf and LaRue don't come from a restaurant background. They were caterers first and still own the company Two Guys from Venice. That experience cooking feasts and exploring different ethnic cuisines has given them a fresh vision. Their menu is a grab bag of dishes from Greek, Moroccan, Arabic, Italian and French traditions cooked with such exuberance, it tastes more like home cooking than restaurant fare. What this food lacks in polish it makes up for in flavor.

When I ask the tall, wholesome waitress a question, she has definite opinions about the food, a response that is entirely refreshing. At one point she describes a dish in such lustful terms, I burst out laughing. When I wonder what sardines "Mo's way," means, she tells me, "This is a dish from our Moroccan chef Mohammed. He grills them whole--actually, they're not sardines today, but a Japanese fish called tejaro that David, the chef, got when he went down to the Japanese fish market early this morning. You get two of them, charred on the grill, served with wedges of lime and an ochre, Thai-inspired peanut sauce." So, of course, I order them. And, of course, I love them.

She recommends the Greek salad terrine, too, which she describes as a kind of pie with layers of roasted peppers, feta cheese and olives, the whole thing wrapped in cucumber and then sliced like a terrine. I will follow this woman anywhere, because, of course, she's right again. The terrine is made with creamy, not overly salty feta, and good olives: irresistible.

The menu changes slightly from week to week. Other first courses I've enjoyed include heirloom tomato salad--a platter of old-fashioned varieties like the meaty Brandywine and gold-orange "pineapple" tomatoes served sliced on a bed of greens with cracked black pepper and just enough balsamic vinaigrette to let the taste of the fruit shine through. The sopes are terrific, too, thick masa patties heaped with sweet fresh corn and roasted chiles, only served in rather too much orangish chile sauce. "Korean tacos," frilly lettuce cups filled with cubes of marinated beef, cucumbers and crisp diced vegetables, are good, too. But proceed with caution, warns the waitress, that dab of hanero salsa is almost a pure chile paste.

I'm less in love with the restaurant's nightly seafood appetizer. It might include Malpeque oysters on the half shell, chilled marinated mussels topped with a chunky salsa, miniature skewers of bay scallops with mushrooms and peppers and some grilled fish. The individual components may be good, but somehow the whole effect is a bit too much.

2424 will make both fish lovers and meat eaters happy. One night there is iridescent gold Thai fish, head on, perfectly cooked on the bone, its flesh custardy and sweet, served with flat shiitake mushroom caps and a rough-cut tropical salsa. Yellowtail has Mediterranean accompaniments--roasted pepper strips, cracked green olives and a little fatoush, the Arabic cucumber and tomato salad. And an aleppo chile crust goes a long way toward giving ubiquitous Chilean sea bass some definition of texture and taste, especially since it's served with an unusual black rice cake.

I'm intrigued, too, by game hen with a honey-pomegranate glaze, served sizzling and aromatic with a sweet, exotically spiced couscous that evokes the taste of Morocco. Tall, juicy pork chops are encrusted with mustard and paired with a lovely potato gallette. And while I like the extravagance of serving a whole lamb shank on the bone, the accompanying white beans seem a bit watery in flavor, despite a chipotle chile sauce.

It's nice to see such a small place take pains with its wine list, a sophisticated selection from up-and-coming wine makers and regions. You can drink a Merlot from Chile or a Marsanne from Santa Barbara--and most wines are offered by the glass.

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