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It's a great little cache

October 28, 2004|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

Nook, a smart new bistro in West Los Angeles, is a hidden jewel. And I don't mean "hidden" as a figure of speech. We literally couldn't find the place, even though the Santa Monica Boulevard mini-mall sign sports the words "Nook Neighborhood Bistro." We cruised the parking lot, finally venturing past the newsstand at the far end and even straying into the Vons lot.

On the third pass, we finally spotted it, wedged into the corner where a Persian restaurant used to be, between a pizza parlor and a Chinese take-out.

Inside, Nook is stylish and welcoming in an offhand way, with high ceilings, sleek light fixtures and a polished concrete floor. Tables are set with design-savvy Chilewich placemats in a silvery bamboo pattern, and an orange banquette adds a jolt of color.

The chef, James Richardson, who is also a partner, hails from Bern's Steak House in Florida, which is known more for its heavyweight wine list than for its food. But here, he's clearly having fun devising an appealing menu of "small" and "big" plates to suit every appetite. The cuisine is American eclectic. And small is not really so small.

Pan-roasted New Zealand mussels arrive in a saffron broth embellished with spicy linguicasausage and oven-dried tomato. They come with La Brea Bakery ciabatta to soak up the garlicky juices. Fried calamari are excellent, too, served with a pugnacious wasabi dipping sauce. And the gutsy sausage selection -- pork, venison, wild boar or whatever the chef has on hand -- is certainly big enough to share, and delicious with red-wine braised onions.

Lentils are, oddly, a recurring theme. You can get them as a curried salad with baby spinach and pickled red onions. Or in the house lentil vegetable soup. A beautiful piece of seared albacore is set down on a bed of lentils surrounded by a moat of spring pea emulsion. "We're very lentil-centric," co-owner Brian Frith-Smith said.

They've got a handsome flatiron steak, too, with a knob of garlic herb compound butter melting on top. It comes with the same fine homemade fries you can order on their own.

The juicy Nook Burger is topped with Gruyere cheese and wine-braised onions (a la Father's Office?) and served unconventionally on grilled bread. It works. The fries are homemade. So is the pickle. You can also get half a roasted organic chicken or a pot roast scented with ginger. If this isn't comfort food, what is?

Not to mention the mac 'n' cheese served bubbling in an oval gratin dish, maybe the best I've ever had. It's made with elbow macaroni, slightly, beautifully firm and cloaked in a cream sauce that's not too over-the-top rich. A great deal for $4, don't you think?

Save room for dessert, which could be anything from a bread pudding laced with melting chocolate chips (kid stuff) to a silky ginger creme brulee.

Though Nook may be hard to spot, the location is perfect for noshing before or after the movies at the Nuart or the Royale, within walking distance of condo row on Barrington and a short hop for most of the Westside.

And now, Nook has finally nabbed a beer and wine license. Frith-Smith must be ecstatic. Two weeks ago, he was still waiting for it and the place was nearly empty. He apologized that he couldn't serve any wine, confessing, "It's killing us."

Not anymore. If people can find it, Nook should be thronged.

*

Nook

Where: 11628 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles

When: Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday; 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday. Lot parking.

Cost: Lunch items $6 to $12. Dinner, small plates $6 to $10; big plates $10 to $18. Beer and wine.

Info: (310) 207-5160

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