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Where the food's the surprise

At 310 Lounge & Bistro, a talented chef creates compelling cuisine in an odd Westside location.

September 29, 2004|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

The car has just squirted out of the underpass, and right there, almost tucked under the freeway, is the new 310. We pull over. The nondescript building doesn't give a thing away. Inside, who knows, it could be a bowling alley, leather bar or gaming parlor. But the slouching valet out front and the hulking SUVs and leased glamour wheels rolling up to the curb as the night unfurls are dead giveaways. This, improbably, is the newest Westside hot spot, a few blocks from the venerable Valentino, across from a map store.

The full name of the place is 310 Lounge & Bistro, with an emphasis on the lounge. The gritty, urban space has the feel of a speak-easy. Nobody is going to come across it by accident, that's for sure. Inside, 310's bar is more bar than lounge anyway, without the posh chairs and chilled Champagne the word "lounge" evokes. As we enter, it's to the left -- a long, skinny stand-up affair where, beneath exposed girders and a wash of colored light, girls toy with pretty cocktails and tug at their midriff-baring tops and Hugo Boss-clad guys knock back a Belgian Chimay ale.

The bar is so much the thing that the bistro part of the name goes almost unnoticed. Whenever I've gone, weekday or weekend, the dining room, with its high wraparound booths and tables swathed in white linen, has been more than half empty. But don't turn tail and retreat back to the bar: Nobody seems to realize yet just how serious the food is at 310.

The dining room isn't just a place to grab a bite between drinks. It's a real restaurant. It's also much better than it has any right to be.

That's because the restaurant's owners have lucked into a very good chef: Nick Coe, who owned the unconventional tent-restaurant, Nick's, in South Pasadena for a couple of years. When he had to close it, he took some time off and ended up, of all places, in Moscow, where he did some restaurant consulting. But the restaurant scene there was, to say the least, challenging. Now he's back and in great form.

The break from day-to-day cooking seems to have reenergized Coe. Somewhere between South Pasadena and Moscow, he has kicked up his cooking a notch. Or maybe he's reveling in being back behind the stoves again, in California, where almost everything is in season year-round.

At 310 Lounge & Bistro, Coe is turning out a concise but compelling California menu. His flavors are fresh and true, his dishes focused. He's older now and neatly sidesteps the temptation to busy things up with too many ingredients and competing ideas. In short, he's solid. He knows what he can do and is smart enough to stay within his capabilities.

The dining room looks something like a '60s supper club, tables set with long-stemmed wineglasses, dim overhead lights. One night, a trio of instruments sits, abandoned, in the corner. Another night, a guitarist sings and plays. He's good, and he's not too loud. But it seems oddly unpopulated. Thankfully, when one of the booths is available, the hostess will seat you there. Clamber up the step and scoot around. It's so big and high that once you're inside it's virtually a private room. From below, the waiters emote the specials. The ones I've encountered weren't seasoned professionals. They were something much better: natural. No waiter-speak. No attitude. Another surprise in a trendy bar scene like this.

I never felt rushed. We could take all the time we wanted catching up with friends, arguing over who was going to order what until someone took control and ordered several of the small plates to nibble on in the interim. They're designed for the bar, but also appear at the top of the one-page menu as appetizers.

A heaping dish of those unmistakable fat, roundish Marcona almonds from Spain toasted in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt gets things started. It's all too easy to gobble up every one of them. A surprisingly generous portion of Barcelona chicken wings has a terrific spicy bite. Crab cakes are excellent too, three diminutive cakes that are almost all crab meat. The only one of the small dishes that I haven't much liked is the stubby chorizo stained with paprika and pimenton (red pepper) and fried up with crouton cubes that resemble Tater Tots. The bread-to-sausage ratio is too high.

If you've got a bottle of Deutz or Veuve Clicquot in your sights, order up some of the beautiful oysters on the half shell, which could be Chesapeake Bay or Kumamoto, depending on the night. Of course, you slurp them down plain or with a drop or two of lemon, but they also come with a mignonette, that typical sauce of wine vinegar and shallots. Coe also includes a fine mincing of green apples, which adds some spark to the oysters without overwhelming them.

A fruitful bounty

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