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Better Than Homemade

Restaurants | Counter Intelligence

At Clementine, chef- owner Annie Miller puts fun twists on some old favorites.

December 13, 2001|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some restaurants strive, some glide smoothly along. Clementine seems to be having fun.

You may have caught a glimpse of it while driving out of Century City. Just north of Santa Monica Boulevard, on a side street called Ensley Avenue, you see people sitting at sidewalk tables or hauling away sacks of take-out.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday December 14, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
Chef's name--The last name of Clementine's chef-owner, Annie Miler, was misspelled in Thursday's Calendar Weekend.

Physically, Clementine is no more than a simple blond wood room in the modern sandwich-and-salad dispensary mode. Its slogan, "homemade seasonal food," shows where the fun lies. Owner Annie Miller, who has been a sous-chef at Campanile, a pastry chef at Spago and a baker at La Brea Bakery, cooks sophisticated, seasonal takes on familiar, even homey foods. Her place also stocks various goodies made in small batches, not necessarily by the restaurant, such as homemade jams, old-time brands of soda, even a boutique goat's-milk yogurt.

How homey does it get here? There's a very satisfying cold meatloaf sandwich, with a tangy Thousand Island dressing playing off the sweetness of lettuce and browned onions. Clementine's version of a ham and cheese sandwich is grilled enough to melt the Gruyere--and to put grill marks on the appetizingly chewy, open-textured white bread. There are onions on this sandwich too, with a dash of balsamic vinegar on them.

The roast beef sandwich comes on a similar bread baked in low-rise form like an Italian ciabatta loaf. The beef is quite rare, sliced very thin, deli-fashion, on arugula and spread with a well-calculated horseradish mustard sauce.

Salmon, cured on the premises, also rings some changes on tradition. It comes with delicate creme fraiche, rather than sour cream, and a couple of caper berries. There's a barbecued chicken sandwich on a well-browned hamburger bun with a dense, cuminy barbecue sauce and some red cabbage cole slaw that doesn't really add much.

In fact, all the sandwiches work quite well, even that cliche, smoked turkey with sprouts on organic wheat bread. The turkey is unusually moist and flavorful.

The salads and various cold vegetable dishes are a little dicier. The chicken salad (also available as a sandwich filling) is rich and subtle, flavored with grapes, diced celery and little aromatic threads of celery root. But the toasted orzo and couscous salad, despite occasional bits of eggplant, chard and ricotta salata, strikes me as too subtle and rather starchy.

The roasted carrots and baby turnips with thyme have a flavorful punch, as do the baby beets in fennel vinaigrette. The spinach salad is entertainingly mixed with raisins and pine nuts. On the other hand, a special one day of "blackened broccoli" seemed just scorched.

As you might expect from Miller's background, the baked goods are all wonderful. The apple turnover is full of moist apples with just a little tartness, like a miniature of the ideal apple pie. There are crumbly scones, buns with a little jam in them (plum or apricot), coconut oatmeal cookies, fresh gingersnaps and a blueberry sour cream coffeecake.

The two best, in my book, are the oatmeal-cranberry streusel bar cookies, tart and slightly crunchy, and the unprepossessing "Moravian sugar bread." The latter looks like a rough, deeply corrugated bread, but in those valleys are rivulets of honey. This simple coffeecake is surprisingly charming.

At breakfast, Clementine has a short menu of things like oatmeal, homemade granola, fruit platter and eggs benedict. The breakfast sandwich is a biscuit with country ham, cheese and a fried egg ("ham biscuits"--tiny, one-bite mouthfuls--are available all day).

The place also makes a daily take-home entree. Several possibilities are listed on the menu, but the only one I've seen is Annie's cheesy meatloaf, and I can believe this is just a matter of bowing to public demand. It's an exemplary meatloaf, meaty and juicy, with a few veins of Cheddar running through it. If only every homemade meatloaf were as good.

Clementine, 1751 Ensley Ave., L.A. (310) 552-1080. Breakfast: Mondays through Fridays, 7 to 11 a.m.; Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Lunch: Mondays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. No alcohol. Parking lot in rear. All major cards. Lunch for one: $7.25 to $12.75.

What to Get: grilled ham and Gruyere sandwich, gravlax sandwich, cold meatloaf sandwich, chicken salad, roasted carrots and turnips, roasted beets, apple turnovers, streusel bars, Moravian sugar cake.

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