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Restaurants | Critic's Notebook

Voda Now Has Dinner, but Cocktails Are Still the Main Course

November 16, 2000|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

"Are we, by any chance, going to Voda, that posh little bar somewhere along here?" the driver asked as we turned onto the 1400 block of 2nd Street. "It used to be a funky bar, but when I popped my head in one night to say hello to the bartender, that whole scene was gone. Unbelievable. Now it's so upscale it looks as if it dropped in from Manhattan. Beautiful martinis, though."

That's the place. It now serves dinner and is being touted in a press release as "the only vodka-themed bar to serve gourmet food," a heretofore unknown category.

I hadn't realized quite how much a bar Voda is. It's so dark you may need a guide dog, or at least a flashlight. The hanging lights are shaded with chains, and votive candles flicker on every available surface, yet it's almost impossible to read the menu without holding a candle in front of it.

Fortunately, some of the appetizers come with their own flames. If places like Rix in Santa Monica or Dominick's in West Hollywood are any measure, young Hollywood yearns for American comfort food and the cocktails of another era. That means swell Manhattans, cosmopolitans and martinis of every ilk. The drinks are good, and they come with the cocktail shaker so you can pour yourself another.

Cheese fondue is one of the retro dishes chef Bonnie Rochellehas on her appetizer menu. As served that night, it's quite liquid, heavy on the booze, and accompanied by the usual bread cubes, raw cauliflower and broccoli florets, and diced apple. It's sort of fondue light and would probably disappoint anybody terribly fond of fondue. Order fire grill, and your server will appear with miniature flaming braziers. The chicken, steak and shrimp are already cooked, explains the waiter, but you can warm them up if you like. Where's the fun in that?

As for main courses, the Voda burger with crumbled blue cheese has real possibilities, but the kitchen seems to have trouble getting the cooking right. Ordered medium rare, first it came out well done, and on the second try, rare. My grilled New York steak had so little flavor, it's hard to believe it was really prime. But those French fries are a newfound match with a martini. There's the inevitable seared ahi tuna, this one with a jalapeno ponzu sauce. The menu is rounded out with a few pizzas, which I didn't try.

The big plus is that most of the produce comes from the Santa Monica farmers market, and Rochelle offers a number of sides, including sauteed mushrooms, sugar snap peas, a simple sauteed spinach and a ginger-spiked Asian broccoli.

Bottom line: better than average bar food, but not a dining destination. Not yet. At least at Voda you can enjoy the great cocktails, but you don't necessarily have to do it on an empty stomach.

* Voda, 1449 2nd St., Santa Monica; (310) 394-9774. Appetizers, $6 to $14; main courses, $10 to $27. Open for dinner Tuesdays through Saturdays.

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