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Wacky and wild, and it works

Minibar maximizes the small-plate approach with big flavors, global influences, quirky charm and style to burn.

June 23, 2004|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

Minibar has a sweet-natured goofy charm all its own. First there's the name. And the motto on the menu: "a frugal finger-food spree with sophisticated five star flair -- part savoir faire, part devil may care. Cocktails and canapes for all to share!" The amazing thing is that the two-month old restaurant lives up to it.

Wedged into a nondescript stretch of Cahuenga Boulevard West, just south of Universal Studios, Minibar (spelled, natch, with a small m) has a kind of stealth presence on the boulevard. Even knowing where it is, I almost miss it every time. Look for a luminous M floating on a tangerine field in the window. I didn't detect any other sign. Then there are the Valets of the Dolls. And dolls they are, one night two blonds, one in a black turtleneck, her hair in a loose chignon, languidly smoking a cigarillo from a holder. The other, also in black, swathed in a pink chiffon scarf.

Of all the valets in L.A., Minibar's owner and muse, screenwriter Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez would pick these. Of course he would. The guy has style. One night as I sat at one of the tables outside, he drove up in a vintage turquoise convertible with white sidewalls. He was dressed rather nattily in black, with a black and white polka-dot silk hankie tucked in his pocket and black and white kicks on his feet. All to haul a bag of ice. He'd come to supply a bag of ice to his wife Rebekah Barrow, who runs the front of the house with warmth and panache.

The two had been plotting to open their own place for years. And when they were finally ready to do it, they called Sharon Hage, an old friend they'd worked with in New York, waiting tables when Hage was between chef jobs. Now Hage is chef at the well-regarded York Street in Dallas, though she's listed on Minibar's menu as consulting chef. She's the first to say, though, that the vision -- the idea of the small plates, the Latin influence, the surprising and eclectic music -- is all Centeno-Rodriguez's. But she did help put together the initial menu, and when the opening chef left, found them Noah Rosen.

He's good. He's worked at Elizabeth Daniel and Jardiniere in San Francisco, and at Patina here. Only a few days after he'd taken over, the kitchen was humming. The dishes he's introduced to Minibar's menu of "this," "that," and "the other" have merged seamlessly with the existing menu.

It's got to be fun working in a place with a sizzling orange kitchen and a dining room with a ceiling covered in silvered lightbulbs. Near the small bar, glass globe fixtures glow a ghostly blue. White ceramic discs have been applied to one wall like festive polka dots. And giant faces from '60s Keane paintings look over the room with their sad, liquid eyes. It's all goofy and charming.

As soon as you sit at one of the tables covered in butcher paper, Barrow or one of the smart sassy waiters will be over with a complimentary thimble of Italian or Spanish sparkling wine. It's just enough to hold you while you consider the wine list. Short, but sweet, it features smart choices from California, Spain, South Africa, New Zealand, Argentina, France, Italy and more.

"Small plates. Big Flavors. All portions serve two," the menu advises. Or four, if you just want a bite or two. They're certainly not skimpy, and considering that many dishes are in the $5 to $8 range, Minibar is very affordable. It's basically mix and match. That goes for cuisines and influences, too, which include Yucatan, Thailand, France, Italy, the Middle East, and Cajun country and other regions of America.

Start with an order of yucca bread, heavenly little smoked gouda-filled yucca flour biscuits or the lovely plantain latkes lavished with Salvadoran sour cream, a terrific variation on the traditional potato latkes. Wings Marrakech are sticky and delicious chicken wings perfumed with Moroccan spices and crunchy under a glaze of pomegranate and orange. Duck confit mini egg rolls are delicious bites of shredded duck fried in a wonton wrapper, and served with a peanut dipping sauce with a beautiful balance of hot to sweet.

Other standouts are the cactus shrimp -- fat barbecued shrimp perched on triangles of grilled nopals with a spicy avocado relish and a drizzle of tamarind -- and lamb Bombay, really tasty little chops rubbed with Indian spices, seared to a perfect medium rare and served with a cool cucumber-mint raita and a wicked cilantro chutney. I loved the thin strips of flatiron steak rolled up and speared on a brochette with onions and huitlacoche (corn fungus) too. And the new blackened rib-eye steak with fried okra and homemade Worcestershire. The flaky bayou empanada stuffed with spiced crawfish is wonderful with incisive tomatillo salsa that packs a kick.

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