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Plenty of Style, Not Substance

Fried Bananas' retro ambience sets a party tone, but the Cuban-inspired dishes too often disappoint.


Visually, Fried Bananas is a witty, revved-up fantasy of a '50s Cuban Americanluncheonette--sitting inside a deconstructed jukebox. The swoop-back tuck-and-roll booths alternate stripes of red leather and black faux-crocodile. On one wall, translucent panels glow in a rainbow of sherbet colors. A strip of the same paneling snakes across the ceiling, throbbing red and white in time to Latin percussion streaming from the sound system.

You almost expect a dancer to rumba by in a ruffle-sleeved Cuban Pete shirt. The full bar sets a party-time tone with a list of goofy drinks (chocolate martinis and melon liqueur blended with fresh fruit).

In short, the place has a lot going for it, so when I encountered problems on my first visit, I was inclined to write them off.

What kind of problems? Problems like the chewy cheese on the pollo empanizado, a huge, lightly breaded chicken breast topped with ham and white cheese, which seemed to have been overheated.

The combo of the week was even less successful; everything on the plate seemed like reheated leftovers. The quarter chicken in "Creole sauce" was mushy, and the sauce--more of a topping, really--was simply a splotch of green peas and rather dried-out pimento peppers. With the chicken came braised oxtail, once again a victim of too much time on the stove. The flavor had all leached into the rich sauce, leaving the meat itself a bland mass.

The black beans, firm and nicely cooked though they were, had uninspired seasonings. A Key lime pie had a pleasant enough flavor but a soggy crust and an odd cheesecake-like texture. Even the fried bananas the restaurant is named for seemed dried from reheating.

I went back to give it another chance. This time I ordered a tortilla (a Spanish egg dish like the Italian frittata) made with shrimp, but what showed up was the ham and potato version. We were so hungry we went ahead and ate it, but, unlike the neat potato tortilla you'd get in a good Spanish tapas bar, it had been sloppily tossed together, and the onions were hastily fried, giving the dish a mixture of semi-raw and semi-scorched onion flavors.

The avocado salad was an exercise in minimalism: slabs of unadorned almost-ripe avocado on a naked plate scattered with a few slivers of raw red onion. Fortunately it came with cruets of oil and balsamic vinegar.


Things began to look up with the arrival of the pollo rostizado. The roasted half bird seemed just out of the oven with nicely crisped skin and juices still running. Yet where was the flavor of the advertised mojito sauce? It lacked the fresh biting taste of sour oranges.

Likewise, the broiled salmon with ajo sauce was short on flavor. The fish itself was fresh and nicely broiled (remind your waiter if you want it rare), but not as garlicky as it should be. You won't go hungry ordering it, though--it comes with a Paul Bunyan-sized heap of steamed yuca topped with more garlic sauce and a generous helping of mixed organic baby lettuce.

The paella makes an impressive entrance, piled dramatically high with mussels, salmon and crab, the rice studded with chicken and Spanish-style sausage. But a red oil oozes from its edges, and the prevalent flavor was the iodine-like taste of stale shellfish. Some of the stewed crab had the straw-like texture and feeble flavor of something that's been thawed and re-frozen several times, then overcooked. It was excruciatingly difficult to remove from the shells, and not worth the effort.

For dessert, the banana-split cake sounded like a wonderfully baroque thing to share. It's frozen pound cake edged with dulce de leche of caramelized milk and ice cream, smothered with fresh bananas and aerated whipped cream. In short, pleasant enough, but put together from ready-made components.

Fried Bananas' pedigree has been widely advertised--it's "from the owners of the Gaucho Grills." With so much restaurant experience, I'm surprised the management has neither created original dishes nor done a good job with Cuban classics. If as much care and imagination had gone into the food as the wonderful decor, Fried Bananas would be a smashing place. Now it's all dressed up--and, for discerning food lovers, no place to go.

* Fried Bananas, 8288 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 650-1202. Open 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 12:30-11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 12:30-10 p.m. Sunday. Full bar. Street parking and parking lot. All major cards. Dinner for two, food only, $30 to $58.

* What to Get: pollo rostizado, salmon al ajo, pollo empanizado, banana-split cake.

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