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RESTAURANTS | Counter Intelligence

Rebecca's Dull Coming of Age

Despite its slick new Santa Monica location, the old eatery, once an institution in Venice, loses the flavor and zest of the original.

May 27, 1999|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The revered Venice institution known as Rebecca's has shut down, but you don't have to mourn for long. The owner has opened the new Rebecca's Restaurant Santa Monica on a slick stretch of Broadway. It's still a loud restaurant, but this is a tamer, more grown-up Rebecca's.

And in the process of maturation, I have to say, Rebecca's has come to feel like a cutting edge that's gone dull. Just for starters, there's nothing here to compare with the striking Frank Gehry interior and papier-ma^che crocodiles that made the Venice restaurant so daring (if you want to see a plastic crocodile, incidentally, there's one at the Crocodile Cafe just up the street). What you notice at the new Rebecca's is a zinc-topped bar, soft hanging lights, a grass mat ceiling and the snazzy patio that faces Ocean Boulevard.

An Armani-type crowd comes by Rebecca's every night to drink 100% agave tequilas, people-watch some of the nattiest dressers in town and eat Mexican dishes with Rodeo Drive price tags. They must have their reasons, but owner Bruce Marder, who has had heaps of success on the Westside with places like DC3, Broadway Deli and West Beach Cafe, just seems to be phoning it in with this entry.

I've encountered many lapses at the new Rebecca's, and they involved every level of the operation, from the bar to the kitchen. For instance, a guest of mine sent back a straight-up martini because it wasn't properly chilled, but instead of getting him a fresh drink, the barman just swirled some ice into the glass. (Note to bartender: This waters the drink down.)

A similar indifference permeated the food service. Dishes often came to our table in random order; you'd have thought we were snacking in a tapas place. And get this: When we ordered the $15.50 hamburger (comes with salad and fried potatoes), we asked for it medium rare, but it showed up well done. So we sent it back to the kitchen--and it was replaced by one that was nearly raw.

What I've enjoyed most here were the Mexican appetizers and the brilliant ceviches, which are more Japanese in spirit than Mexican. Guacamole is made to order and served in a hollowed-out avocado shell. It's really a delight, but the portion (apparently one avocado) struck me as parsimonious.

The tortilla soup and the hearty pozole were deliciously full-flavored. On the other hand, though Rebecca's famous duck chile relleno looks nice on the plate, duck with peppers is not a convincing flavor combination.

There are several varietal ceviches, as it were--you can get ceviche of ahi, halibut, salmon, mahi mahi or yellowtail, all drizzled with olive oil and incredibly good. Even better, you can order the mixed fish ceviche, for which you get to choose three kinds of fish.

*

The more modest dishes acquit themselves reasonably well. There are good soft tacos with fillings such as carne asada, carnitas and (more unusual but certainly appealing) beef short ribs. One of the best salads is a nice one of haricots verts and garbanzos, which makes a winning middle course.

But the kitchen really struggles when it comes to the main dishes, only a few of which manage to hit the mark. The best is the tender braised short ribs served on mashed potatoes with grilled purple onions. Rebecca's vegetarian grill, one of the menu's bargains at $11, is a nice plate of grilled portabello mushrooms, zucchini, eggplant, onions and sweet peppers, served with Spanish rice and black beans.

You're on your own, though, if you want to try the seafood and chicken paella, a tired pan of mushy rice gruel laced with overcooked chunks of fish and chicken. Another surprisingly mediocre dish is the ahi tuna--a flavorless hunk of fish in a biting citrus-based sauce. I thought I was on safe ground ordering the roast chicken ranchero, but it was under-seasoned and the accompanying fries were limp.

Things perk up at dessert. There is a nice gooey chocolate bread pudding served warm, an equally good mocha flan and a perfectly respectable lemon meringue tart.

Rebecca's was an exciting destination in the early '80s, which some people now talk about as the golden age of L.A. restaurants. I say we have as many fine restaurants as ever, but if this watered-down spinoff were all there was to judge by, they'd have a point.

BE THERE

Rebecca's Restaurant Santa Monica, 101 Broadway, Santa Monica. (310) 260-1100. Open 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking. All major cards. Dinner for two, $45-$69.

What to Get: guacamole, tortilla soup, mixed fish ceviche, haricots vert and garbanzo salad, braised beef short rib, chocolate bread pudding.

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