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Off 3rd Street, and into another world

Enter the Little Door and, for a while, you'll fall under its spell. You could be in Provence and the Mediterranean beyond.

July 23, 2003|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

I'm outside the Little Door waiting for the valet to bring my car around when three twentysomethings emerge from the margarita-mad bar El Carmen up the block. As they pass by, I hear one give his out-of-town friends the lowdown on the restaurant. "Incredibly romantic," he says, sidling up to the heavy, carved Moroccan door and peering in.

Of course, like any spot with pretension-to-hipster credentials, there's no sign. Only a string of cobalt blue Christmas lights threaded through a lush vine. And that door, which opens on a magical courtyard strung with chandeliers and flowering vines. A tiled fountain gurgles on one wall and candles are ablaze on every table. This open-air dining room welcomes smokers, and if the crowd isn't made up of actual Europeans, they're the next closest thing: wine drinkers who know how to swirl their glasses and dine late.

In the corner, garden benches softened with blue-striped cushions fence in a long wooden table that's perfect for a party. And at the outdoor bar, the bartender splashes some white wine into a little creme de cassis to make a kir. Somewhere between the beats of the French techno music, I hear the pop of a Champagne cork.

With its collage of flea market finds and antiques and French doors thrown open to a series of charming dining rooms, the Little Door has captured the spirit of the south of France like a firefly in a jar. The attitude is French. The waiters are mostly French. The menu covers France and the sun-drenched Mediterranean. Only the address is 3rd Street.

Coveted garden spot

Getting a table in the garden is never certain. Call up, and a hostess with a sultry French accent will note your request, but won't promise anything. Sometimes you can walk right in and find a table. Other times, you'll have a long wait, and if you don't enjoy people smoking at the next table, you may prefer one of the other rooms.

Chef T. Nicolas Peter, an American, cooks to a Mediterranean beat. In a dozen appetizers and about the same number of main courses, the Little Door's menu takes diners on a whirlwind tour of France, Italy, Spain, the Middle East and Morocco. It's wonderful to see a larger swath of the Mediterranean represented instead of the usual France-Italy axis. The downside is that the flavors are barely sketched in and the products, despite a gloss of farmers market produce, aren't always the quality that would justify these kinds of prices.

Service is swift and verges on the brusque. As soon as you sit down, a server appears with a basket of bread and a bottle of olive oil at the ready. Only it's not very good olive oil. It's not even good bread. Maybe -- maybe -- I can see dipping the bread in an exquisite extra virgin olive oil in order to taste the oil, but when the oil is just a pool of grease, it's pointless.

On a sultry night, chilled cucumber soup decorated with a swirl of creme fraiche makes a lovely starter. Another is the trio of roasted beets -- gold, red and pink -- cut in thick slices and accompanied by fennel salad in a roasted garlic vinaigrette. The beets could be more flavorful, but at the Little Door, you quickly learn not to ask too much. A refreshing salad of sliced avocado and orange segments with fresh asparagus is perfectly fine too. As is the grilled marinated calamari with green beans and tomato.

Steamed black mussels should be a slam dunk, but one night they're rubbery and have a slightly funky bouquet, enough to push the plate away. Mezze are an embarrassment: a plate of soggy spinach and filo pie, eggplant puree, hummus and various other dispiriting bites with pasty pita bread. Moroccan greens are simply ordinary salad greens strewn with bland canned chickpeas and julienned carrots. The preserved lemon is a nice touch, though. The sharp, vinegary artichokes in the generous marinated baby artichoke salad could easily have come from a large industrial can too. Even with some shaved Manchego cheese on top, $15 seems a steep tab for such a sorry salad.

And so it goes. It's very hard to get a handle on what's going on here. One night the meal is nothing to rave about, but OK. On another, almost every dish is inedible and though we hardly eat, no one ever wonders why. On a third visit, the cooking is much more focused and competent, but compromised by the quality of the meat and fish; I'm left wondering if this was the only occasion of the three when the chef was actually there.

Uneven entrees

The best main course I had was the seven-vegetable couscous in which turnip and squash dominate. The couscous is fluffy and tender and you can doctor the blandness of the dish with a little harissa and a sweet-tart onion confit that functions like a chutney. Couscous "Royal" doesn't come off as too royal, mostly because of the indifferent merguez sausage and tasteless lamb.

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