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Served by Starlight

The food is Italian, the mood cheery. There are only five tables indoors, so you may end up under the tent at this cozy dining spot in Culver City.

May 06, 1999|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a stretch of Venice Boulevard known for Versailles Cuban Restaurant and a cluster of little Indian places, a former Spago sous chef recently opened a tiny cafe of his own. Well, expandably tiny: five tables indoors, maybe 15 more under a tent out in the parking lot.

Antonio Montana's new Culver City home, Starlight Cafe, is homey in an odd-looking way. There are bizarre paintings on the walls and massive dowels like giant rolling pins mounted in the counter. But the cooking, and the whole style of the place, is the sort of Italian foodie stuff we've grown to love.

For instance, there's a menu, and you could certainly order off it, but there's always a raft of specials, proposed with an air of cheerful solicitude for your happiness. In fact, the place is so Italian it's really a puzzle that the menu misspells so many Italian words.

Furthermore, the lunch and dinner menus are almost entirely distinct, only four dishes repeated. There are fewer meat entrees and more salads and pastas at lunch, as you'd expect, and several sandwiches. The panino di bistecca is sauteed steak on a roll with caramelized onions and roasted yellow and red peppers.

There's a surprisingly good soup at lunch, too: zuppa di pomodoro e patate. The Roma tomatoes and potato chunks swim in a watery-looking broth, but in fact it's richly flavored with basil, garlic and Parmesan.

The regular menu soups are also reliable at dinner. Cozze e vongole is Manila clams and black mussels in a peppery tomato and oregano broth. The golden orange cream of carrot soup has a fascinating dash of sweet wine. The soup of the day is often a creamy, very flavorful zucchini soup that tends to be a little too salty.

I liked the spinach salad--nice goat cheese, pancetta, balsamic dressing--but couldn't find the dried cherries the menu spoke of. When we told the waiter, he good-humoredly brought the table a whole bowl of dried cherries.

The only regular pasta I've tried was linguine con tequila, an obviously nontraditional concoction involving chicken, bell peppers and mushrooms. But the pasta specials are likely to be more impressive--say, gnocchi with porcini, or exquisite lobster ravioli (made with black pasta) with a rich, buttery "vegetable" sauce.

I've had two main dishes from the menu--a pleasant grilled chicken with a lemony sauce, and a T-bone steak (bistecca fiorentina, here cut quite thin) with a nice browned-meat flavor--but most nights I've been seduced by the specials. Such as a beautiful baby rack of lamb dosed with rosemary and garlic, with roast vegetables on the side, or the pesci del giorno. One night the fish was Mexican sea bass, another it was flaky, perfectly cooked halibut. Both came in butter sauce loaded with scallops.

If you really want to go nuts, there's the chef's special dinner, which can run $40 a head. It's six courses drawn from the specials of the night. Here's what my table had one night: Vegetable-stuffed ravioli in chicken broth scented with Parmesan and garlic. Then mushroom caps with a moist bread crumb stuffing spiked with lemon peel. Then a very homey sort of pasta--rigatoni tossed with shrimp, sun-dried tomatoes and toasted bread crumbs.

For the first meat entree, we had a choice of filet mignon in a buttery brandy and herb sauce, beautifully cooked salmon--crisp on the outside, moist inside--topped with scallops or Hawaiian shrimp. The shrimp were long and straight, something like true scampi, and came in a tangy sauce of tomatoes, garlic and brandy. The second meat entree was a baby rack of lamb in a cherry and Marsala sauce that was way too sweet.

The dessert choices on the chef's menu that night were tartuffo (chocolate ice cream with a vanilla center, rolled in cocoa), panna cotta (thickened cream; good flavor, a bit too much gelatin) and bread pudding. The bread pudding is also on the regular menu, along with good sorbetti (especially the passion fruit and lemon models), and it's wonderful, made from pan d'oro with a luscious semi-liquid custard element, like bread pudding debating whether to become a pudding cake.

This is a pretty delightful place. I wouldn't mind if it expanded a little, but I hope it can keep its reasonable prices.

BE THERE

Starlight Cafe, 10445 Venice Blvd., Culver City; (310) 559-3727. Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and dinner 5 p.m.-11 p.m. daily; brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. No alcoholic beverages. Parking lot. All major cards. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$50 (chef's menu, $80).

What to Get: crema di carote, lobster ravioli, Hawaiian shrimp, salmon with scallops, passion fruit sorbetto, bread pudding.

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