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Beachside Hip

The Latest From Will Karges, Master of the Celebrity Buzz, Is a Quieter Scene

September 22, 2002|S. IRENE VIRBILA

The hip quotient at the new Drake's in Venice is high. First, it's in Venice, less than a block from the infamous boardwalk. Second, this contemporary American restaurant is the project of Will Karges, the plugged-in entrepreneur behind Blueberry, El Dorado and the recently defunct Rix. Karges is a master at creating the buzz needed to put a restaurant on the map, if only briefly. I used to think he bused in babes to populate the upstairs bar at Rix, until I saw seven or eight step from a white stretch limo and upgraded the mode of transportation.

Set in the historic St. Mark's building, Drake's has the feel of a speak-easy. Most of the light in the dark space comes from the open kitchen at the back of the room. On the long side of the L-shaped dining room are cozy booths and white-clothed tables. Beyond that are two rows of banquettes with an upturned gondola mounted overhead. A tall mirrored art piece includes a still of Dennis Hopper from the film "Easy Rider," like an artifact from another era.

Despite Karges' connections, in the four or more times I've stopped in in as many months, Drake's still looks like a scene waiting to happen. Either Karges has lost his touch or, what I hope is true, he's aiming for a quieter, more mature atmosphere. Admittedly, Drake's is a late-night venue. Things don't begin to pick up until well after 9 on the weekends. But even on a weekday night when we reserve at 8, the staff dishes out plenty of attitude. My friend Deanne arrives out of sorts. "With the velvet rope out front you'd think Aerosmith was playing inside! There's nobody waiting! All I wanted to do was join the table, but the manager stopped me. I had to wait for the hostess!"

Meanwhile, the food is smart, straight-ahead American comfort food. Chef Christian Shaffer has put in time at Cicada, Pinot Bistro and the Napa Valley's Pinot Blanc. The Los Angeles native has written a menu at Drake's that should appeal to both beach bums and high society.

For die-hard pizza fans, Shaffer offers "thin-crusters." The one topped with grilled tiger shrimp with caramelized onions and sliced Bliss potatoes is delicious. "The Red and Bleu's" flavors--gorgonzola, halved red grapes and prosciutto--sound bizarre but they make magic together. An equally zany idea falls flat: roasted chicken and creamed corn pizza. As soon as you take a bite, the chicken and corn fall off the pale crust. Shaffer scores a direct hit with his steak tartare. Sitting atop a bright red steak patty is half a quail's egg. The idea is to spill the yolk into the hand-chopped beef, and mix in any or all of the seasonings arranged in discrete piles around the beef--which include grain mustard, chopped red onion, parsley, capers, and sea salt--to taste. Another success is sand dabs, one of the few truly local fish you ever get in L.A. restaurants. Pairing these sweet, tasty flatfish with rock shrimp is a nice idea, but piling the fried seafood into a paper cone may not be. The seafood tends to steam, so the crust loses its crispness. But I love the fiery rouille that comes with it.

Caesar salad gets the full art-directed treatment. A 6-inch section of bread has been set on end and hollowed out to form a sort of vase. Hearts of romaine are neatly tucked in, so the whole thing looks a little like an Indian headdress.

In a town where most chefs are fine with offering any old vegetable puree as soup, Drake's stand out. One night it's Italian egg drop soup, or straciatella, made with good chicken broth and swatches of spinach and egg. Charred tomato soup another night features a thick-textured puree of smoky tomatoes lit up with cayenne or chile. It's a little like a Mexican version of the Tuscan pappa al pomodoro. Twice-baked lobster may have had more life the first time around.

Main courses are hit and miss. A hefty pork T-bone, juicy and ribboned with tasty fat, is terrific. But a Delmonico steak suffers from being cut too thin, and tastes more steamed than charred. Prime flatiron steak doesn't have enough flavor to persuade anybody to switch from a New York or a Porterhouse.

In the best steakhouse tradition, Drake's kitchen tries out some innovative sides. Creamed spinach is more like spinach leaves with cream poured over the top. And wild mushroom tart is basically a dish of sauteed mushrooms wearing a puff-pastry hat. Fava beans with ham hocks sounds inspired: I'm hoping the half-raw favas I had are just one night's aberration. However, Drake's mashed potatoes, which are doctored with creme fraiche, shallots and bacon, are divine.

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