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Eats: Restaurant Reviews and News | COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Ale and Arty: Former Brewery Caters to Creative Clientele

October 29, 1998|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here we are in the middle of nowhere: an alley off a side street off North Main Street, two miles north of downtown. At 8 p.m. this part of L.A. is dead, dead, deadski.

Still, there's a restaurant open here, and the secret to its success would seem to be its weird, weird, weird location. Despite its obscure surroundings--the sprawl of industrial buildings that used to be the Pabst Brewery--Barbara's at the Brewery contrives to be more than half-full at this hour.

You could say Barbara's has a captive clientele. The former brewery, cagily renamed the Brewery, is an artists' colony, as those who attended its Artwalk open house last weekend know. The artists who live and work at the Brewery are Barbara's natural customers, as are their clients and friends.

The place does a fair amount of takeout, but there are people who drive here and stay; people who find Moulton Avenue, drive down it until they see a brick building with big (but not especially legible) black letters spelling "The Brewery," where they turn left and drive the equivalent of half a block to a brightly lighted parking lot. Barbara's, up a couple of steps, is indicated by a small illuminated sign located rather high on its building.

A year ago, it was a lunch-only place named Cafe Berlin. Then it was bought by Derek Dickenson and Barbara West, who had the very successful restaurant DickensonWest in Pasadena. They've since broken up their partnership and divvied up the restaurants, though some things at Barbara's still refer to DickensonWest, not least among them the sophisticated touches in the food.

So what do you eat in this modernistically stark room, with its cement walls and corrugated ceiling? So far, the menu is very much a work in progress. At lunch, there's a selection of familiar salads and sandwiches, plus a daily changing selection of entrees, including fish and chili. The green salad is likely to have candied pecans in it. The Caesar salad gives a slightly sweet impression (it might use some lemon juice and Worcestershire), but it's light and attractive in its own right. The sandwiches always include an Italian chicken and mozzarella panino.

I've also had a very attractive salmon with a brown sugar glaze at lunch. It was cooked (not seared) on one side only, so the texture varied attractively from done at the bottom to something like lusciously warmed-up sushi at the top. The sweet glaze was odd at first, but finally no stranger than a Chinese plum sauce. The fish came on rice flavored with perhaps a hair too much saffron, surrounded by stir-fried chunks of baby pattypan squash and sweet peppers.

The dinner menu changes every day, but crostini with tapenade always seems on hand in the appetizer selection, and understandably, because it's an irresistible snack: very crisp, toasted Italian bread with a punchy black olive paste. There may be a pleasant baked Brie (in crust). The only soup I've tried was a misconceived "Thai" shrimp soup that tasted like split peas with ginger.

Somewhat surprisingly, there's a pizza list. The trendiest-sounding one, topped with salmon, turns out less exciting than it sounds, but the "breakfast" pizza is really wonderful. It's topped with tomato sauce, cheese, bacon and surprisingly fluffy scrambled eggs.

The entree list always seems to include a chicken dish and a fish of the day (often given the one-side cooking treatment), varied with mild sauces of eclectic inspiration. So you may have salmon with dill sauce or chicken with a simple, appealing "Hunan" sauce (sweet and sour with a hint of chile). Usually there's a good tender steak.

All these stand in the shade of the mushroom ravioli in garlic chile cream sauce, though. You can ask for Bolognese sauce if you like, but the slithery ravioli are best in this rich, mildly garlicky sauce.

The desserts always include a tiramisu (mostly little brick-shaped chunks of bread neatly mortared together with custard sauce) and an excellent lemon bar, which is something like a cookie turning into a pie: shortbread topped with lemon curd topped with a cheesecake-type, sour-cream frosting. There may also be chocolate bar cookies of similar structure.

Barbara's serves cocktails and has a shrewd, offbeat wine list. And you'd never guess any of this if you were standing out on lonely Main Street at this hour.

BE THERE

Barbara's at the Brewery, 620 Moulton Ave., Suite 110, Los Angeles. (323) 221-9204; fax 221-9289. Full bar. Parking lot. Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 6-10 p.m. Monday-Friday. All major cards. Dinner for two, food only, $26-$44. What to Get: crostini with tapenade, mushroom ravioli with garlic chile cream, salmon with brown sugar glaze, breakfast pizza, lemon bar.

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