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Dining on Dreams

Gardel's adds atmosphere and pasta to typical Argentine fare of beef, garlic and cheese. Go on Thursday and order the paella.

September 04, 1997|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's getting on toward the end of the century, and I, for one, have been waiting for some fin de siecle spirit. Well, it's at Gardel's.

Under its new owners, this pioneer L.A. Argentine restaurant has an air of hoarded dreams and faded elegance, just what you'd want in a place named for Carlos Gardel, the King of the Tango, who was born in either France or Uruguay, depending on which story you accept, and is still Argentina's favorite singer 60-odd years after his death.

The narrow, dusty-pink room looks like a cross between a bandbox and a boudoir (one that happens to contain potted plants and even a couple of small trees, twinkling with strands of lights). Waiters glide by unobtrusively. Bitter, tragic Argentine love songs play softly in the background.

The new owners have added nightly specials and more pasta dishes to the now-familiar Argentine lineup of steak, pasta and huge amounts of garlic. And cheese is a big player on this menu: Several of the dishes give the effect of a cheese pizza uncluttered with dough, for instance provolone a la parrilla, a plate of chewy melted cheese topped with tomatoes, garlic and parsley. Some nights there's a cream of pepper soup, mostly cheese, that you could call liquid pizza topping.

But garlic still rules. The best appetizers are the whole roasted head of garlic (ajo al horno) and the papas fritas provenzal, which are medium-greasy French fries dosed with parsley and garlic. You know right away when the next table's order of fries has arrived, they're that garlicky.

Garlic and parsley also form the basis of the vinegary sauce chimichurri. You get a little gravy boat of it when you order the empanadas, which are made with a biscuit-like dough and stuffed with beef, cheese or spinach. Sometimes, on special, there's an alternative to the fried empanadas, a sort of Middle Eastern baked empanada made with filo. In this case, the chimichurri flavorings are right in the filling.

Oddly, though, the pollo al ajo is scarcely garlicky at all. It's just a split chicken fried on the griddle and topped with mild blanched garlic cloves. The best thing about it is the buttery mashed potatoes, and you get those with any meat entree.

Even some of the steaks are more garlicky than the chicken. If you want, you can have the wonderfully tender skirt steak (entran~a) more or less pizza-style, topped with melted mozzarella and, of course, parsley and garlic.

As does any properly meat-obsessed Argentine restaurant, Gardel's has the appetizer matambre (a thin pounded steak rolled up with vegetables) and the entree parrilla argentina, a mixed grill of pork sausage, blood sausage, sweetbreads, beef ribs and steak. The parrilla comes out on a little iron charcoal brazier, filling the restaurant with backyard barbecue aromas.

However, these days the menu leans heavily to pastas. Many are familiar (although "gnocchi" is spelled n~oquis), but they're not to be sniffed at, as it were. The linguine putanesca has a satisfyingly sharp, garlicky tomato sauce.

And several of the raviolis are distinctive. The one stuffed with sausage and spinach comes in a riotously rich pesto cream sauce, and part of the fun is the occasional burst of anise from the sausage. The saffron cream sauce on the rosemary and chicken ravioli is also rich and fragrant, though somehow I couldn't detect any rosemary in the dish.

Pasta Neptuno is slightly overdone vermicelli mixed with mussels, shrimp and squid in a thin, sharp tomato sauce. I would always prefer the wonderful paella (available only on Thursdays, unfortunately), which mixes all the same ingredients, plus chicken and a scattering of peas and green beans, with perfectly cooked, richly flavored short-grain rice. It's a little on the salty side, but it is the single best thing here and a scornful reproach to all the wimpy paellas served in our part of the world.

Apart from a couple of store-bought chocolate-covered ice cream deserts, there's a flan and an odd thing called zingarella, a dense cake topped with a layer of apples and a layer of flan. For sheer intensity, you'd go for panqueques con dulce de leche, two buttery crepes wrapped around really dark caramel. They've been described as caramel blintzes.

One of the most pleasant things about Gardel's is the wine list, which specializes in the unfamiliar wines of Argentina. The perfect choice is the buttery '91 Carreras Cabernet: plush and enveloping, like indulging in the memory of an old heartbreak or dancing one last tango with a dream.

BE THERE

Gardel's, 7963 Melrose Ave., L.A., (213) 655-0891. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 6-10 p.m. Monday-Friday, 6-11 p.m. Saturday, 5-10 p.m. Sunday. Full bar. Street parking. All major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $28-$55.

What to Order: papas fritas provenzal, paella (Thursdays only), parrilla argentina, entran~a, linguine a la putanesca, panqueques con dulce de leche.

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