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EATS: Restaurant Reviews and News | * COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

The American Way

At Miss Gregory's Kitchen in West Hollywood, the dishes get better as the meal proceeds.

March 19, 1998|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Halfway between a Wolfgang Puck Cafe and the Directors Guild, cater-corner from Greenblatt's Deli and the Laugh Factory, there's a little West Hollywood mini-mall--and I mean little; at peak hours, the parking valets run like mad shuffling cars around in the tiny lot--that's almost entirely restaurants. Argentine, Italian, health food . . . and regional American.

Though his name may make him sound like just another Austrian nouvelle cuisinier, Chef Kurt Struwe proudly cooks in an American vein. Sometimes his place, Miss Gregory's American Kitchen, brings to mind the late American Bar and Grill, which was so passionate about getting American food out from under the shadow of France that it referred only to "main dishes," not "entrees." In the same vein, Struwe makes only "skinny" fries. Don't call them French.

Needless to say, Miss Gregory's is decorated with more homey quilts than you could shake a stick at. A couple of Junior League cookbooks are strewn around in the bathrooms for idle browsing.

This is refreshing. Ambitious, creative chefs are always tempted by exoticism; meanwhile, everyday restaurants tend to do a slapdash, corner-cutting job on the limited range of American dishes they serve. Between the two, the American food tradition is perennially due for another rediscovery.

A meal here tends to begin inauspiciously and get better with each course. The house salad is quite plain, except for the addition of carrots; the classic Caesar doesn't use the classic coddled egg dressing, though it correctly omits anchovies. The Rhode Island clam fritters have only a slight clam flavor--they're basically cornmeal balls in the hush puppy mode, with a mild cranberry horseradish dipping sauce. The portabello mushroom appetizer, with its topping of pears, Parmesan and more mushrooms, makes a scattered, if pleasant, impression.

But Struwe makes great old-fashioned soups. You can always get the smooth broccoli-potato soup and a reddish-brown mushroom soup with a pure wild mushroom flavor. Sometimes he offers a creamy corn chowder with perfectly cooked diced potatoes in it.

All the entrees I've tried have been good. The pot roast is moist and meaty. The skillet toss with shrimp, chicken, sausage and catfish has a little mildly hot tomato sauce. You can also get catfish baked in a lemon-walnut crust--a bright idea, even when the crust gets a little blackened in places. The crispy duck breast, a rather small portion, comes with a tangy caramel sauce and some pistachios.

The best entree (OK, main dish) is the buttermilk fried chicken in its thick, aggressively crunchy breading. The meat is nice and moist (oddly, it appears to have been blackened a little before being breaded). The optional gravy is very good, not excessively starchy.

The main course dishes come with soup or salad, plus two vegetables and a choice of potatoes. The potato choices are either skinny fries, mashed potatoes with a dash of garlic and chives or roasted potatoes. The last have an attractive lemon and rosemary flavoring but sometimes an odd spongy texture.

The vegetables include spinach cakes--pleasantly chewy cakes of spinach and rice, like vegetarian crab cakes--along with sugary acorn squash puree, al dente braised red cabbage, candied carrots, low-key collard greens and a sweet baked onion.

There are also sandwiches--burgers, meatloaf, cheese steak and a chicken sandwich with a gutsy, slightly smoky homemade barbecue sauce--and a couple of pastas. Lunch and brunch throw in omelets and other egg dishes.

The high point of the meal, as is often the case in traditional American cookery, is dessert. Struwe uses good dark chocolate in his chocolate bread pudding (served sliced!). The brandied apple-walnut cake, with caramel and maple cream sauces, is perhaps a little over-browned, but that's part of the aesthetic. The rich pumpkin cheesecake has walnuts in the crumb crust, and the peach and cherry cobbler has an absolutely luscious texture--and the authentic biscuit-like cobbler crust.

After dessert, you might like coffee. Have no fear; it won't be espresso in a demitasse, but strong American coffee in a huge mug.

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BE THERE

Miss Gregory's American Kitchen, 7986 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (213) 822-9057. Open for lunch noon-2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; for dinner 5:30-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday, 5:30-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; for brunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday. No alcohol. Valet parking. American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Dinner for two, food only, $31-$62. Corkage fee: $7. What to Get: mushroom soup, corn chowder (on special), pot roast, buttermilk fried chicken, peach and cherry cobbler, pumpkin cheesecake.

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