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EATS: in and around the Valley | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Cafe With Pizazz

Paul's, though tiny, proves popular with its inexpensive, creative menu.

September 24, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The runaway success of Cafe Bizou has launched a trend for low-priced French-California places. As a result, the new darlings of Ventura Boulevard are JoeJoe and Perroche--and Paul's Cafe, a tiny corner storefront place, which seems to be the hottest new restaurant in Sherman Oaks.

Paul is Paul Lloyd, and he's the guy in the dark goatee frenetically searching for your name in his crowded reservation book. He used to work at Joe's in Venice, the ancestor of JoeJoe, so any similarity between Paul's and JoeJoe is probably no coincidence.

For instance, at Paul's Cafe, as at JoeJoe, you can add a soup or salad to your entree for $1, a great bargain. And the corkage fee if you bring your own bottle of wine is a rock-bottom $2.

If Paul's Cafe has a flaw, it's size. The tables are jammed together in two cozy dining rooms. The rooms are notable for white walls, white tablecloths, white lighting . . . and noise. We're talking serious decibels in these tiny rooms.

But a little noise isn't going to deter you if you're hungry. You'll want to start with one of the reasonably priced appetizers. The salmon, shrimp and scallop ravioli are big, round

ones filled with a mousse of the three seafoods pureed together. What makes the dish work is a creamy lobster butter sauce poured over the ravioli.

Another rich creation is lobster and wild-mushroom cannelloni. To my mind, it's so rich it would better suit the entree list. It consists of two thick pasta tubes stuffed with a dense mixture of mushroom duxelles and chopped lobster.

I don't recommend grilled portabello mushrooms for a different reason: They come with a relish of tomatoes, arugula and crumbled goat cheese, but the mushrooms don't have much flavor.

If you aren't content with the plain-but-palatable one-buck mixed green salad, try the delicious French butter pear salad with radicchio, arugula, endives, spiced pecans and a judicious amount of pungent Gorgonzola.

The entrees show a nice range, and I'm not referring to prices. (But since you asked, they run from $10.95 to $14.95.) This kitchen does a pretty good job cooking fish. Witness a perfectly roasted whitefish on a bed of sauteed spinach and mashed potatoes.

The porcini-crusted sea bass is also nicely cooked, but was a little spoiled by a watery, unattractive beurre blanc sauce. The pepper-crusted salmon with artichoke and wild mushroom hash is fine, though I'm not convinced the red wine sauce enhances the flavor of the fish.

But the filo-crusted shrimp with seafood ravioli is a real oddity. The heavily layered pastry tastes almost like tempura batter, and the ravioli appear to have a crab filling. The whole thing comes in a brown-butter vinaigrette.

The best of the meat entrees is probably the roast chicken breast, which comes with Yukon potatoes, green beans, carrots and a nicely reduced chicken stock. The breast is served with its beautifully bronzed skin on, and the meat is juicy and tender.

There's a filet mignon served sliced in a dark Port wine sauce that may be too sweet for some people's idea of steak. What I like best about the garlic-rubbed rack of lamb is the terrific goat cheese and potato tart that the four chops rest on. Besides, who can find fault with a good quality rack of lamb at $14.95?

On the whole, what you get here is good value for the money, but the dessert course desperately needs improvement, starting with the sallowest, feeblest tarte Tatin I've encountered in years.

The quite dry chocolate cake is nearly salvaged by two scoops of good cappuccino crunch ice cream.

But hey, Paul's Cafe is a smash, and I can already picture the next wave of spinoffs.

BE THERE

Paul's Cafe, 13456 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Lunch 11:30 a.m.- 2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, dinner 5:30-10:30 p.m. daily. Valet parking. Beer and wine only. All major cards. Suggested dishes: French butter pear salad, $5.95; salmon, shrimp and lobster ravioli, $6.95; roasted whitefish, $11.95; garlic-rubbed rack of lamb, $14.95. Call (818) 789-3575.

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