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Summer Splash | Eats : Counter Intelligence

A Place at the Beach

At the Canal Club, the food is good but perhaps even better are the bar and the stylish Frank Gehry design.

May 20, 1999|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Once upon a time--well, up till October--there was an upscale Mexican restaurant at the beachy end of Venice Boulevard, right on Pacific Avenue. Rebecca's was wildly popular because the food was good, the drinks were powerful . . . and anyway, everybody had to see the Frank Gehry design that cost $1.5 million.

Now restaurateur Bruce Marder has moved on and the owners of James's Beach (itself the location of Marder's first restaurant, the West Beach Cafe) have taken over the location and renamed it the Canal Club. From the new name, it sounds as if they see it as a hangout for Venice locals. One which just happens to have $1.5 million worth of decor, that is.

The place is still dominated--and, to a degree, lit--by Gehry's famous radiant wall of translucent marble, but it does have a more relaxed feeling. This time the theme is beach food ("Simple Fare From Beaches We Love" is the slogan) and the sound track now runs to Caribbean, Polynesian and Algerian pop music.

As ever, the focus is the bar, which opens an hour before dinner. It's stocked with good liquor, including a couple of premium Bourbons, and the lime juice in the margaritas and Polynesian cocktails is freshly squeezed.

The food includes a couple of nice touches, such as an interesting bread basket (a garlicky cracker bread, an oniony bread with a dense crumb), imaginative use of Moroccan pickled lemons and a selection of grilled and pressed Cuban sandwiches. But no kitchen is going to do an equally good job on spring rolls, bagna cauda and American fried chicken.

*

Sometimes the dishes turn out to be not quite what the menu announced, which isn't necessarily bad. The tangerine crepes at dessert turned out to be filled with brightly flavored kumquats, rather than tangerines. I couldn't taste the pickled lemon in the arugula salad with couscous, though it did have some decent goat cheese, and the couscous was a surprise--it was the pea-sized al dente sort favored in Israel and Lebanon, rather than the tiny, fluffy North African kind.

As befits a beachy menu, a lot of it is appetizers. There's a decent crab cake with carrot and onion shreds in it, and an overdone artichoke with an anchovy-heavy bagna cauda dipping sauce.

The Cuban sandwiches, served as appetizers, are beachy fun food. I've had one of pork and Manchego cheese and a definitely non-Cuban one of chicken and melted Brie. The best part might be the potatoes, which are cut as thin as shoestring potatoes and fried quite dark brown.

There are a couple of combo platters. The Trader Dan's platter includes the OK chicken tempura with a sweet dipping sauce, classic Cantonese glazed pork spare ribs and some spring rolls with a quasi-Italian stuffing of roasted sweet peppers (oddly, accompanied by the traditional sinus-destroying Chinese mustard). The Mykonos platter is the usual fried calamari, a rather dull baked eggplant with a bit of hot sauce and striking lamb meatballs, full of delicious lamby gaminess and served in a minty yogurt sauce.

Among the entrees, the air-dried duck has a good texture and a sweet lacquered finish, a tasty baby rack of lamb is accompanied by ratatouille and a bizarre "fig pesto," and giant shrimp come in a very convincing Thai curry sauce full of the flavors of lemon grass, galangal and coconut milk. Beautifully grilled salmon appears on a bed of that big couscous.

But when this place does chicken, it's too beachy--it makes you think of something that's been sitting around in a picnic basket. I'm talking about the smoky but tired rotisserie chicken (nice salad of greens, olives and pickled lemons, though) and the "beach fried chicken" in very heavy breading.

The desserts aren't beachy at all. A flourless chocolate cake. A paper-thin Nouvelle Cuisine-ish apple tart on puff pastry with lots of slightly burnt caramel sauce and some wonderful cinnamon ice cream. A pineapple upside down cake where the pineapple slices aren't scorched (hey, that's not traditional). And a terrific coconut cake in a cream frosting loaded with toasted almonds.

This isn't demanding food, or even very flashy food. It's upscale beachy pub food. Or Club food, if you prefer.

BE THERE

Canal Club, 2025 Pacific Ave., Venice. (310) 823-3878. Dinner 6-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 6-midnight Friday-Saturday, 6-10 Sunday. Full bar. Valet parking. All major cards. Dinner for two, food only, $53-$93.

What to Get: pork spare ribs, lamb meatballs, Cuban sandwiches, Thai curried shrimp, air-dried duck, coconut cake, margarita.

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