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The Joy of Southern Comforts

January 25, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA

"Name?" asks the host when I call to make a reservation.

"Jordan," I answer, giving the name of one of my guests.

"Michael?" the voice on the other end of the line responds, half hopeful.

"Sorry, just Bill."

On Friday and Saturday nights, limos and luxury cars are always pulled up in front of Shark Bar Restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard. Arrive after 8 or 9, and you won't be able to squeeze into the bar or, for that matter, the lounge next to it. Nothing is low-key about this new Southern restaurant. The crowd is flashy, dressed to the nines--and in every style imaginable, from Motown razzle-dazzle to Salt-N-Pepa hip-hop. I'm fascinated by the hats on the half-dozen young blades at one table. They're smart, sculpted city hats with rolled brims.

The Los Angeles Shark Bar is the third in a series (the others are in New York and Chicago) of updated Southern restaurants, all with a lively bar scene. This one has taken over a large, warehouse-like space that served briefly as a French seafood brasserie. The designers retained the brasserie's massive mahogany bar and tamed the huge room by filling the lounge with big sofas, lowering the ceiling with a large wooden grid and painting the walls in warm hues. Oversized movie posters and black-and-white photographs lend atmosphere. The pulsing soundtrack that rumbles beneath the surface of conversation helps, too.

The Shark Bar is co-owned by Keith Clinkscales, president of Vibe magazine, so the connection with L.A.'s music, entertainment and sports scenes is a natural. This place is a jolt of pure caffeine--and it's open late, till 12:30 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.

Southern cooking gets short shrift in this part of the world. I know homesick people from the South who gather to cook big Southern feasts, ordering pulled pork from Tennessee or special hams from Arkansas. Though L.A. has its share of small, home-style cafes, there's no upscale Southern restaurant, with the exception of Georgia on Melrose. The Shark Bar concept is a solid one: good Southern cooking that's a little more health-conscious than the norm (for example, the menu includes salads with vinaigrette on the side) and tweaked for a more sophisticated, urban audience. All main courses are less than $20 yet they include two sides and are generous enough to feed a Shaquille O'Neal. The chef here is Sean Mudd, who cooked in the South for 12 years.

As soon as you're seated, it's nice to get slabs of skillet cornbread and rich, crumbly buttermilk biscuits that taste of shortening and baking soda. Go easy, though, especially on the sugary-sweet potato muffins, there's a lot of food coming. For starters, you can't go wrong with the juicy Harlem-style chicken wings in a dark brown spicy coating, fried so that every edge is irresistibly crisp. Or the Louisiana crab cakes, sauteed to a golden brown, with a moist, plump interior, served with a bright, lemony tartar sauce. When it comes to the two gumbos, Miss Ruby's seafood or Big Easy chicken and sausage, my vote goes to the Big Easy version, made with a good dark roux and laden with chicken, andouille sausage and slippery okra. The soul wrap is not as weird as it sounds; it turns out to be a flour tortilla wrapped around shredded chicken, well-cooked collard greens and black-eyed peas, and the flavors work.

For those who want slightly lighter fare, Shark Bar offers greens, as in salads with barbecued shrimp and thin stalks of grilled asparagus, or the Country Cobb, which is topped with strips of tender, grilled chicken, hard-boiled eggs and ripe avocado slices.

It doesn't take a culinary genius to figure out what the best (and most popular) entree is: the Southern fried chicken and ribs combination. Make that with smothered collard greens (khaki-colored but good, redolent of smoked turkey) and earthy black-eyed peas. The chicken is honey-dipped, and that slight undertone of sweetness enhances the bird's fine crunch. You get your choice of white or dark meat, too. If you want, skip the ribs for an entire order of the fried chicken. But those ribs--suffused with a hickory scent and slathered in a rust-colored barbecue glaze--are falling-off-the-bone tender. I could also easily settle for the pork chops smothered in an excellent gravy. Mashed potatoes, however, are stiff and taste as if they were made hours before. But I love the collard greens, cooked soft as cabbage, piquant with a splash of vinegar. Candied yams are very sweet. And the green beans are cooked until there's not a vestige of crunch left, which is entirely Southern. There's a standard, creamy potato salad, too, or macaroni and cheese that's more cheese than pasta. Red beans and rice could use some seasoning.

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