YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


A Dream House

April 08, 2001|S. IRENE VIRBILA

House. It's a good name for a restaurant, a word as sturdy and basic as a wooden alphabet block. It stirs a nest of images: a set table, a fire in the fireplace, the smells and sounds of cooking, a family eating together--quite the opposite of today's busy households, where everyone eats different things at different times and rushes off to jobs, school, appointments. Restaurants now stand in for that someone who's spent all day in the kitchen and wants to feed you.

The House, whose use of the lowercase "h" in its logo evinces its simplicity, is in a sweet little two-story Arts and Crafts bungalow on Melrose Avenue, just east of Vine. It couldn't be less Hollywood. There's no valet. Not one heavy-breathing Corvette or Porsche out front, just a handful of parking spaces with cars parked every which way. From the outside, it looks a bit stark. But inside, Scooter Kanfer, the chef, and her partner Dana Caskey, who runs the front of the house, have transformed the three downstairs rooms into a homey restaurant.

They didn't have a big budget, but they did have the right ideas. They've painted the walls a mysterious gray-green and hung them with quirky paintings from a local artist, Charles Karubian. (I love the saucy dancing girl, and that stubble-chinned cowboy shaking two bloody steaks at the sky is growing on me.) Shirred Japanese paper sconces cast a soft light, and the flowers are lovely, loose arrangements that give the room the feeling of a private house.

On a blustery late February evening, we arrive to find the fireplace lit, candles glowing on the mantelpiece and a table set next to the fire. My friends had arrived earlier, and they proceed to point out everything they've tried in the bread basket. They're impressed that the pretzel comes with a crock of grainy mustard.

The House celebrates American cooking, which is harder to find at serious restaurants in Los Angeles than it should be. We've got Italian, French, Asian fusion and Californian galore. Kanfer won a following for her sensible American food when she was dinner chef at the Hollywood Hills Coffee Shop several years ago during a career that includes cooking at the late City restaurant and making pastries at Vida, Granita and Chinois on Main. Now she finally has a kitchen of her own, which is a good thing, because this is one chef who delights in feeding people.

Taking a page from Fred Eric at Vida, she gives some of her dishes whimsical names and pays affectionate tribute to family and friends. "Dad salad" for example, is baby red Bibb lettuce with crispy bacon, Vidalia onions, hard-cooked eggs and Maytag blue cheese dressing. There's a 'little picnic"--"my pop's pate," a silky liver terrine served with caper berries and mixed olives. Vegetarians tired of the usual grilled vegetable plate will appreciate her farmers market "pot pie." In one manifestation, it's a petite dark green squash, top askew, hollowed out and filled with a riot of root vegetables that's swathed in flavorful wild mushroom and herb jus. It tastes as good as it looks. Spoon bread tart of the day arrives in a miniature cast iron skillet. The cheddar version, for example, is corn bread laced with cheese. Sometimes, though, it can be dry.

Kanfer's cooking is deep in the comfort vein. Other cooks have rediscovered macaroni and cheese, for example, but she had the idea to make it with large shells, which mitigates the richness of the sauce, made from a mix of cheeses and bechamel. She takes a fat pork chop and stuffs it with bread and sage. Almost everything comes with wonderful greens from the farmers market, and I don't mean salad greens. These are collard, mustard and other dark green vegetables packed with vitamins and everything good for you.

One of my favorite dishes here is pan-seared chicken served with buttermilk mashed potatoes and the pan juices. Another satisfying dish is her subtle lamb stew with fennel and egg noodles splashed with the lamb juices. She changes her menu frequently, so don't expect to find exactly the same dishes every time. At this writing, she had just added chicken and dumplings and calf's liver with warm bacon vinagrette.

Her plating is graceful and natural, not the primped tall food turned out by chefs more interested in showing off than giving you something you'd really like to eat. I know someone, a big nosher, who found the portions disappointingly small. To my mind, Kanfer should be sainted for not giving you too much food.

Everything on the plate is interesting. Yellow pike is served with a handmade tartar sauce. A beautiful piece of cod comes with Brussels sprouts the size of your pinkie.

The wine list is short and not as well-edited as it could be. The restaurant is young, and I suspect no one has had time to focus on it. A better wine list would certainly add to the House's appeal.

Los Angeles Times Articles